Lawyers for prominent AIDS “dissident” Matthias Rath defended his attack on South Africa’s most influential activist group on Thursday, telling a court his drive against AIDS drugs was part of a debate on the pandemic.
Rath’s lawyer John van den Berg said statements that anti-retroviral drugs were toxic and that the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was a front for pharmaceutical companies might be true and should be part of the public debate over AIDS.
“Debate should not and cannot be restrained,” Van den Berg told the Cape High Court. “There will be some who are wounded in the process but as long as that happens within the ambit of the law all is in order.”
South Africa is the country hardest hit by AIDS, with one in nine of its 45 million population estimated to carry the HIV virus that causes the disease. Only about 42,000 of them are now receiving publicly-funded AIDS drugs.
TAC, which was nominated last year for the Nobel Peace Prize and has long fought the government for better AIDS treatment, is suing Rath and his foundation for alleged defamation and what it says are lies about life-prolonging AIDS drugs.
The group denies it has ever received money from drug companies.
The TAC application for an urgent interdict to stop Rath from making such allegations was postponed at the end of Thursday’s proceedings to allow for further argument. The court did not immediately indicate when the case would resume.
“STORMTROOPER” FOR DRUGS
The Rath Foundation, headed by the German doctor who also runs a vitamin company, said in paid ads in international newspapers and in pamphlets distributed in South Africa’s poor townships that anti-retroviral drugs are poisons and promoted vitamins and nutrition in the fight against AIDS.
The foundation described the TAC as the “stormtrooper” of the pharmaceutical industry and said it was being paid to instigate revolution against President Thabo Mbeki’s government - itself frequently accused of moving too slowly against the AIDS crisis.
Several hundred TAC supporters gathered outside the Cape Town courthouse, singing and chanting demands for better treatment.
Rath accuses the United States, Britain, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation of a conspiracy to promote expensive medicines on behalf of a drugs cartel.
The United Nations’ top AIDS official, UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot, on Wednesday criticised Rath during a trip to the region.
“Recommending vitamins as treatment for HIV is not only confusing, but is going to kill people,” he told reporters in Johannesburg.
TAC chairman Zackie Achmat told reporters the TAC had issued a summons against Rath for a full defamation challenge, demanding he either publicly apologise or pay 2 million rand ($307,600) in damages.
Revision date: June 21, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD