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One gay soldier, Jean Erasmus, was chemically castrated by Dr Levin at Bloemfontein psychiatric hospital in 1980.

Before he committed suicide last year, Erasmus recorded a tape detailing the broader abuse of homosexuals in the army, including how he was forced by his officers to participate in the gang rape of Angolan women, and how other gay soldiers were given hormone drugs.

"I am quite convinced that quite a few murders of gay people took place which we will never know of, and it was covered up. When people got trigger happy, gays were often the brunt of the bullet."

In practice, the army's treatment of gays was confused. Many found themselves in de facto "gay battalions", according to Mikki van Zyl, a researcher on the Aversion Project report.

"In Uppington, virtually the whole battalion was queer until some general decided this should be broken up. There was one in Grahamstown. There was another in Pretoria. For some of them, these were supportive environments," she said.

Some men joined the army specifically to get a sex change operation. But others were pressured into surgery by military psychologists after other methods failed. The army carried out as many as 50 sex change operations a year.

Lesbians were also offered surgery - one woman is among those left partially altered after the programme was shut down.

The Aversion Project report argues that the doctors concerned broke international law.

"Health workers in the [military] were expected to be loyal first to the state and its ideologies. It meant that some doctors flagrantly ignored terms from the Geneva convention and Tokyo declaration, and certainly showed no accountability to the national professional councils, nor best current practices. The stage was set for human rights abuses of patients under the care of such doctors."

Ms van Zyl says that while the army as an institution should be held accountable, Dr Levin has particular responsibility.

"He left a trail of experiments. He worked in environments where he had captive subjects and he abused them," she said.

Dr Levin emigrated to Canada at about the time he was warned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that he would be named as an abuser of human rights.

Speaking to the Guardian from Canada, where he works at a teaching hospital, he said he left South Africa only because of the high crime rate, and denied the accusations against him.

"Nobody was given electric shock treatment by me. What we practised was aversion therapy. We caused slight, very slight, pain in the arm by contracting the muscles, using an electronic device," he said.

"Nobody was held against his or her will. We did not keep human guinea pigs, like Russian communists; we only had patients who wanted to be cured and were there voluntarily."

Copyright © Guardian Media Group PLC 2000

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Q: Who is Jean Erasmus?
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