'Dr Death' denies apartheid regime murders

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The head of apartheid South Africa's chemical and biological warfare programme gave testimony for the first time yesterday in his trial for murder, fraud and drug trafficking.

Dr Wouter Basson revealed the freedom he enjoyed as a powerful man in the former regime. He dealt in secrets with state enemies, enjoyed an unlimited budget and made numerous foreign trips. The only requirement was that he inform authorities if the country was in danger, he said.

But Dr Basson, 50, denies any involvement in illegal activities and denies prosecution allegations he headed a secret programme that searched for ways to kill black enemies of the state. He has pleaded innocent to all the 46 charges against him, including 13 counts of murder. He was acquitted three months ago of 15 other charges, including murder and conspiracy to kill.

Dr Basson, dubbed "Dr Death" by the media, took the stand for the first time in the 21-month trial at Pretoria High Court. He told the courtroom he had wanted to be a gynaecologist, but changed his plans during national service. After two years in the military, he began to enjoy "the structure" and became a cardiologist.

Speaking in Afrikaans, Dr Basson boasted about his achievements as a military doctor, particularly the part he played in defeating a hepatitis epidemic. He also said he had helped Iran stave off famine in the mid-1980s, but spoke humbly of his rise to the top position in the state's chemical and biological warfare programme.

Dr Basson's testimony and cross-examination is expected to continue for weeks. He was originally arrested in 1997 selling ecstasy to a police informant. Prosecutors say police investigators subsequently found documents in his home detailing a programme to manufacture large quantities of street drugs for the purposes of crowd control.