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South Africa

Dr Shock is in the dock – and now his wife is under lock

The Canadian trial of Aubrey Levin, the notorious Apartheid psychiatrist known as ‘Dr Shock’, should shortly produce a verdict. Levin is accused of nine counts of sexual assault against male former patients, and his wife Erica has also been placed under house arrest for allegedly attempting to bribe a juror. It’s a trial that has made huge news in Canada – but many say Levin should have faced the music decades ago for his allegedly unethical treatment of gays in the Apartheid military. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Unless a mistrial is declared, Aubrey Levin will shortly hear whether he will spend a portion of his remaining years behind bars in Canada. After escaping any retribution for his controversial activities as a military psychiatrist in his home country, South Africa, the law may yet have caught up to Levin. It is a dark and bizarre story: the man alleged to have shocked, drugged and allegedly even castrated suspected homosexuals in the Apartheid military now stands accused of having repeatedly sexually assaulted male patients in Canada.

Ward 22 of 1 Military Hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte, near Pretoria, was where he operated. That’s where suspected gays in the army were sent to Dr Aubrey Levin for “treatment”. Levin was positively evangelical about curing homosexuality: in 1968 he wrote to Parliament asking to address its members on potential changes to the laws on homosexuality, noting that he had “treated many homosexuals and lesbians and enjoyed some measure of success in therapy.”

This “therapy” took the form of drugs, electro-shock therapy and hormone treatment. For those who didn’t show signs of responding, it is claimed that chemical castrations or sex-change operations were in store. Most of Levin’s patients were young, white and male, and they were referred to him by military officers, chaplains and doctors.

Some of their stories are recorded in a study titled “The Aversion Project: Human rights abuses of gays and lesbians in the South African Defence Force by health workers during the apartheid era”. Published in 1999, the study arose out of reports given in submissions to the health sector hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in June 1997. The same hearings led the TRC to accuse Aubrey Levin of “gross human rights abuses”, but by that stage he was safely ensconced in Canada.

“The Aversion Project” study recorded how doctors like Levin were allowed to proceed with their unethical experiments into curing homosexuality “in contempt of contemporary medical practices at the time”. Levin would claim in an interview with the Guardian in 2000 that his approach represented the standard treatment for gay people at that time. But by 1968, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) had revised homosexuality down to a “non-psychotic mental disorder”. By 1974, the DSM no longer listed homosexuality as a category of disorder. Yet Levin’s bizarre “therapies” continued throughout the 70s and 80s.

“Electrodes were strapped to the arms of the subject, and wires leading from these were in turn connected to a machine operated by a dial calibrated from one to 10,” explains The Aversion Project study. “The subject was then shown black and white pictures of a naked man and encouraged to fantasise. The increase in the current would cause the muscles of the forearm to contract—an intensely painful sensation. When the subject was either screaming with pain or verbally requested that the dial be turned off, the current would be stopped and a colour Playboy  centrefold substituted for the previous pictures… [The doctor] would then verbally describe the woman portrayed in glowing and positive terms. This process would be repeated three times in a single session. Sessions were held twice daily for three to four days. People subjected to this therapy experienced long periods of disorientation afterwards.”

Trudie Grobler, an intern psychologist at 1 Military Hospital, witnessed an aversion therapy session where a woman suspected of being a lesbian was shocked so hard that her shoes flew off her feet. “I couldn’t believe that her body could survive it all,” Grobler later said. One man given hormone treatment at Levin’s hospital found that his “whole body and hormone system developed abnormally”. He told Aversion Project researchers: “I look like a woman because of the induced testosterone abnormality”. This man, named as “Neil”, committed suicide before the Aversion Project study was published. As a result of the research process he decided to explore litigation, only to discover that all medical records from his military stint had been expunged.

But the man who presided over it all, Aubrey Levin, got away scot-free. Levin moved to the city of Calgary, in Canada, in 1995, after reportedly living for a while in Grahamstown. The TRC never issued a subpoena for him, so he did not testify there. In Canada, Levin seemed able to make a perfectly clean start. He briefly served as regional director for the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, and was licensed in 1998 to practice psychiatry in Alberta (the province which holds the city of Calgary). Levin was subsequently appointed clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Calgary’s medical school.

It is only since Levin was arrested on charges of sexual assault in 2010 that the Canadian media seems to have done any digging into his past. Part of the reason for this might be Levin’s fondness for litigation: he has several times threatened to sue publications which made reference to his Apartheid history. Since his current legal troubles began, however, difficult questions have been asked about Canada’s willingness to welcome him – especially as it emerged that two doctors who worked under Wouter Basson were also able to emigrate to Canada without difficulty. (If you’re wondering where Basson himself ended up, today he works as a cardiologist at the Durbanville Mediclinic).

The case currently being heard against Levin has attracted enormous interest in Canada. Initially scheduled for six weeks, it has now dragged over three months. The trial began in Calgary in late September, despite Levin’s defence team claiming that Levin, 73, was unfit to stand trial due to suffering from dementia. In the pre-trial hearing, his wife Erica told the court that Levin’s mental health had steadily deteriorated since being arrested in 2010. Erica Levin claimed that her husband was no longer able to dress himself without assistance. Her account was undermined, however, by the fact that Levin reportedly put on his own jacket and coat without difficulty at the close of proceedings.

His defence team also sought a three-month adjournment because of Levin’s other health problems, including morbid obesity. The trial went ahead, but Levin fired his defence team after less than two weeks. For a few days he undertook his own defence, refusing to cross-examine witnesses because he said he was not trained to do so. When he hired a new defence team, he was granted a two-week adjournment. Thereafter, his lawyers were allowed to cross-examine the witnesses he had missed.

The Crown’s case against Levin rests heavily on one witness, known as RB, 36. RB said that he was told to meet with Dr Levin as a condition of his parole after being released from jail, and was subsequently sexually assaulted by Levin during their sessions. He testified that after Levin first fondled his genitals, he was too scared to tell anyone because he thought that nobody would believe him and he would be sent back to jail. The attacks allegedly continued for a decade before he secretly taped two appointments on a spy camera. One of the videos is almost 15 minutes long, and reportedly shows Levin apparently undoing RB’s belt and fondling him.

It was a result of RB’s video footage that Levin was arrested and charged in March 2010. Police then put out a public call for other patients who may have been sexually assaulted by Levin. More than 30 others came forward, but the Crown’s case has been whittled down to nine. All but one of the 9 witnesses were assigned to Levin by the courts for psychiatric treatment between 1999 and 2010.

Another witness told the court he had been seeing Levin as part of a five-week programme following a suicide attempt. During a visit in 2009, Levin allegedly suggested that the patient’s partner might be cheating on him and proposed checking him for sexually transmitted diseases.

Nonetheless, the patient continued to see Levin until March 2010, when Levin ended their consultations. Levin’s defence team has alleged that the former patient has an ulterior motive in the form of a $400,000 lawsuit against Levin. Another witness claimed that Levin suddenly grabbed his testicles, without explanation, for 10 seconds while he was being treated for depression.

Levin has only testified once, in a videotaped statement to police after his arrest, which has been shown to the jury. His claim was that he was performing procedures on patients to help them with sexual dysfunctions. The Crown responded with the testimony of a University of Toronto urologist who said such a test would only normally be carried out on patients with severe spinal shock. Furthermore, experts said Levin did not have authority to carry out this procedure, and if he had, he should have been wearing rubber gloves, which he was not. In court, RB made his point succinctly: “He had no reason to touch my penis. He’s a psychiatrist.”

As of Monday, the jurors have been deliberating for four days, unable to reach a verdict. One juror has been dismissed, because Erica Levin allegedly attempted to bribe her on 11 January in exchange for a not guilty verdict. The juror told Justice Donna Shelley that Erica Levin – who she recognised from her continual presence in the courthouse – approached her and offered her an envelope of money. Erica Levin, 69, was found in contempt of court by the judge and is under house arrest until the trial is over. On 4 March she’ll now have her own day in court, to be criminally charged with jury tampering.

When giving instructions to the jury last Friday, Shelley said that a guilty verdict could only be handed down if the Crown had succeeded in proving his case. “Dr Levin does not have to prove he is innocent,” Shelley said. “The Crown has to prove he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” This seems to be the sticking point: on Sunday evening, the jury dispatched a note which read: “Despite vigorous and lengthy deliberations, we are unable to reach a verdict on any of the nine counts. We do not believe further deliberations will change this.”

Levin’s defence team is calling for the declaration of a mistrial on these grounds. The Crown’s team, meanwhile, has been muttering concerns about the bribed juror. While they aren’t saying so in as many words, their fear seems to be that other jurors may have been paid off. They have also voiced worries about the fact that the jurors have not asked the court a single question of clarification during their deliberations.

Even if Levin gets off, it seems almost certain that his professional career is over. He has been stripped of his credentials pending an investigation by the Canadian College of Physicians and Surgeons. Levin was also a prolific expert witness, testifying in numerous court cases. These cases are currently being reviewed.

If he ends up in jail at the age of 73, this may be scant consolation to those South Africans Levin mistreated in the Apartheid military decades ago. But perhaps they will take what little satisfaction they can from this outcome. A Cape Town blogger who calls himself ‘BiPolar Guy’ encountered Levin in the mid-80s while being treated for his as-yet-undiagnosed bipolar condition. On his blog, he describes the experience:

“Finally a little lady in red indicated that it was my turn. I entered [Levin’s] little office and sat down on the opposite side of a little coffee table to him. He was dressed in civilian clothes and I could detect an air of smugness in his demeanor. He observed me, waiting for me to say something. I opened my journal to where I had joined the Alpha and the Omega. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘The Alpha and the Omega.’ He examined the picture for a while and then shook his head: “Looks like a penis to me,’ he said.”

Within two days of meeting Levin, the blogger recounts, he had commenced electro-convulsive therapy against his will.

“I am angry,” the blogger writes, recalling these events in the light of Levin’s current court case. “But strangely I also feel vindicated. In the final analysis he was more f*cked up than me…” DM

Read more:

  • Canadian psychiatrist ‘Dr Shock’ stands trial on sexual abuse charges, in the Guardian

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