Juggling with reputation and the Google-syndrome

31 Jul

Originally posted at my blog spin.off , while working on the book.

The Flemish toxicologist Aubin Heyndrickx was quoted in the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times as an expert on chemical warfare providing evidence for the Saddam trial. ‘Making a firm case against Saddam’ was written by Elisabeth Rosenthal and published on June 19, 2006.

In this SpinWatch article Eveline Lubbers explains why he is a charlatan: he was twice convicted for fraud and forgery, his scientific work was never peer reviewed, and his research paid for by people with political intentions. He also had strong links with Wouter Basson, Dr. Death of South Africa.
Furthermore, he worked with Evelyn le Chêne in Africa.

The second trial against Saddam Hussein is expected to begin this summer or in early autumn – the charge is genocide against the Kurds. But proving that the victims died from chemical weapons is a daunting task: all the firsthand proof was gathered nearly 15 years ago, and many records have been lost or destroyed. The attacks occurred in remote areas where little testing was available.

The International Herald Tribune went looking for expert-witnesses and found Dr. Aubin Heyndrickx. He is one of a small group of doctors, scientists and Middle East experts who have studied chemical weapons use by Iraq against its Kurdish citizens in the 1980’s, so the paper writes. He is also a charlatan, whose scientific reputation has been under question since the eighties. Apart from that he has been convicted for defamation, fraud and forgery of research findings. Facts that the paper apparently missed.

How can someon like this be presented as a ‘world-renowned expert’?

The frontpage of the International Herald Tribune showed a picture of dr. Aubin Heyndrickx, 79 years old, posing in a white laboratory coat behind three sealed jars. Last month, Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote the story of the ‘retired director of the toxicology lab at the State University of Ghent’:

‘GHENT, Belgium — For 18 years, Dr. Aubin Heyndrickx has tended the sealed jars containing strands of hair and scraps of clothing he gathered from a dead woman’s body.

Collected in Halabja, one of many Kurdish towns in northern Iraq that were attacked with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s army in 1988, the jars have been stored in a blue plastic drum in his lab ever since, waiting.’

Now, as prosecutors prepare to try Mr. Hussein in Baghdad on charges of genocide against the Kurds, Mr. Heyndrickx, would like the material to be analyzed. If the public prosecutor decides to use this expert-witness, it would be easy for the lawyers of the former dictator to dismiss the evidence.

Heyndrickx was convicted in 1991 for libel and forgery. He signed diplomas for a handsome student 35 years his junior, who never attended college, he paid her for work never done, and accused her new love of drug trafficking when she refused to see him any longer. He resigned, under great pressure from the university.

In 1995 Heyndrickx was convicted once more. He received a suspended prison sentence of 1 year, and a substantial fine. He was found guilty of fraudulent practises which meant millions of loss for the University of Ghent, the University Hospital and various Public Health insurance companies. Heyndrickx falsified data of lab analyses in order to get refunded by insurance companies, he had himself paid for services he failed to commit. Heyndrickx was sentences to pay damages of $ 650,000.

The International Herald Tribune hardly questioned Heyndrickx’s scientific claims, and never mentioned his criminal past:

‘Dr. Heyndrickx says he believes that the Iraqi Army used cyanide and biological toxins as well as mustard gas and sarin, making him somewhat of a maverick in the field, since most other scientists feel that the evidence doesn’t support this claim.’

But the paper rebutted this by quoting another expert:

‘Still, he was one of the few Western experts in Halabja just after the attack, and the samples in his lab, particularly the clothing, could still provide valuable clues if they were properly sealed and stored’

There is a bit more to say about the scientific evidence. Heyndrickx travelled around the world, he went where the war was – his favourite claim was the use of cyanide. He was in Vietnam and Cambodia, in Rumania under the Securitate, and in Tokyo after the sarin-attack in the subway – invited by the Japanese government or so he claimed. Heyndrickx refused to allow findings to be reviewed by his peer, except for carefully selected allies who would back his claims. Sometimes he would hide behind rules of secrecy applied by institutions he allegedly worked for – often this was proven to be a lie.

Which leaves us with the issue: who paid for the research?

The research in Halabja was done on invitation from pro-Iranian Kurds. Heyndrickx presented his research findings at a conference sponsored by the Iranian government. He claimed to be visiting Iran for a decontamination mission of the World Health Organisation. American journalist David Aronson called the WHO head office back in 1989 to hear that the only thing Heyndrickx was contracted for, was to advise on the building of a laboratory. (1)

Heyndricks is most renowned for his repeated claim that Angola used chemical agents against the CIA-backed rebels of Unita. He said chemical gases supllied by the Russions and the Cubans had been used by dos Santos against the Unita movement of Jonas Savimbi at least between 1986 and 1991. Evidence for his claims was untenable, and was not taken serious withing the scientific world. Heyndrickx travels to Angola were funded by Savimbi, and fitted well with the propaganda plan to undermine the MPLA government. With the USSR falling apart and Cuba retrieving its troops from the area, Unita feared the support of the Americans and the South Africans would fade away. (2)

Someone who did welcome the claims of chemical warfare was Wouter Basson. The leader of the South African CBW program, – dubbed Dr. Death in the press- could always use more funding for his chemical experiments. He was working on a vaccine for eradicating the black. Research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that the justification for Project Coast and various other of Basson’s projects, the potential threat of chemical attacks of South Africa, were uniquely based on Heyndrickx’ claims. (3) The criminal prosecution of Wouter Basson revealed Heyndrickx’ dodgy business with the South Africans. The Serious Fraud Office charged Basson with the payment of 3,8-m Belgian francs (100,000 dollar) to Heyndrickx for travel costs to Iran, procurement of shrapnel contaminated by chemicals used by Iraq and establishment of intelligence channels in Iran. The other charge related to Heyndricks was the payment of 90-m Belgian francs (2,5 million dollar) for acquisition of Chemical Agent Monitors. Heyndricks sold this University equipment but told his employer it was destroyed, forged the receipts and kept the money for personal gain.

The Dutch liberal evening paper NRC Handelsblad struggled with Heyndrickx’ reputation for quite a while. By the end of 1989, and the beginning of 1990 his Angola research got a lot of exposure, but so did his illustrious background. With ongoing investigations into shady financial practises at the University of Ghent, and his work denounced in foreign papers like Der Spiegel, Heyndrickx wrote an opinion piece to claim ‘Victims of chemical war live as plants.’ This was in order to reply to a long article by the American journalist David Aronson, who researched many of the rumours around the Belgian toxicologist. Citing unimpeachable sources – American intelligence agents – he concluded the professor was nothing but a charlatan. The dean of his own pharmaceutical faculty, André de Leenheer, was hard in his judgement: ‘Heyndrickx’ reports are unsubstantial and useless. There is no causal connection between the chemical agents used and the effects. He delivers no evidence.’

Heyndrickx countered the criticism by inviting a group of European experts to prove he is right. Of the physicians that were part of the delegation, the German, Spanish and Belgians were not included in the final report, but the colleagues from Austria and Great Britain ‘renowned researchers’ who back up his claims. At least one of those two labs did not exist, a fact that was not established in 1990. The Institute for Risk and Crisis Analysis is nothing but a corporate intelligence agency, providing companies with risk analyses. The agency was exposed for spying on activists. Its director Evelyn le Chêne attends international conferences to warn against terrorists or activist groups that could eventually use chemical agents. Danger is imminent, according to Le Chêne, either from animal right activists or splinter groups the religious survivalists The Covenant, the sword and the arm of the Lord. They allegedly intended to poison water supplies in major US cities in the mid-eighties, with cyanide. Their motivation was to ‘hasten the return of the Messiah by carrying out God’s judgements against sinners.’ Evelyn Le Chêne also did more PR work for Savimbi at the time.(4)

It was not until Heyndrickx was convicted that the Dutch paper was really done with him. ‘An inglorious end’ the NRC headlined. ‘As a result, as of now Heyndrickx can be crossed of the list of authoritative and widely quoted experts in the field of narcotics, chemical warfare and so on.’ (5)

If only this were truth. The International Herald Tribune is not the only one that still knows to find him.

May 2004 he presented a paper at a NATO research conference ‘Catastrophic Terrorism and First Responders: Threats and Mitigation.’ According to the conference reader Heyndrickx represented the International Reference University Laboratories (IRUL) in Ghent. This may sound like he’s still connected to the academic world, but in fact this is the company he started at his private address after he was forced to resign. From his home address he bombards the world with his press releases and faxes on chemical warfare research and related issues, and letters to the editor.

The hih-ranking Jane’s Defence Weekly issued a press release back in 1999 ‘Exclusive Serb’ forces alleged use of gas.’ According to Professor A Heyndrickx, the Serbs have been using nerve agents, including sarin since the early 1990s – affecting some 4,000 Kosovar Albanians, most of them children.

For Jane’s he is the director of IRUL and a toxicologist advisor to the UN since 1984. Indeed he sent his advice to the UN, unsolicited. And to NATO. And to the Yugoslavian War Tribunal in The Hague. Charges of chemical attacks have been made frequently by all sides in the decade of civil war in the Balkans. All have been hard to prove, though experts agree Yugoslavia has such weapons. Heyndrickx was invited by the Kosovo Liberation Army, Jane’s said. The KLA had reasons of its own to vilify the Serbs. The Guardian and the New York Times, amongst others, reported on the claims made in Jane’s Defence Weekly. And again, his research findings were questioned, but not Heyndrickx’ reputation.

In June 2002, Heyndrickx findings were cited before a Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. The issue of investigation was: ‘Cuba’s pursuit of biological weapons: fact or fiction?’ The report of the hearings cited ‘evidence ‘‘scrupulously documented’’ by the senior United Nations consultant on chemical warfare, Dr. Aubin Heyndrickx of Belgium. Toxicologists certified that residue from chemical weapons—including sarin—was found in areas of recent action.’ A footnote explained that a Belgian team was led by ‘Dr. Aubin Heyndrickx, chief United Nations consultant on chemical warfare, a world-renowned Belgian toxicologist and professor at the State University of Ghent, Belgium.’

In February 2001 a member of the European Parliament submitted a written question to ask why Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, had requested the Ghent toxicologist Aubin Heyndrickx to carry out a study of Balkan veterans who are ill or who have died. Fellow scientists accuse him of using ‘less than scientific’ research methods, he is convicted for forgery and suspected of close links with Wouter Basson. The answer given on behalf of the Commission is clear: ‘Mr Heyndrickx on his own initiative sent several letters to the President of the Commission. The Commission has not charged Mr Heyndrickx to undertake any studies mentioned in the Honourable Member’s question nor is it aware of any other activities of his.’

It is difficult to understand why someone like Aubin Heyndrickx is stil taken seriously.

For newspaper journalists it might be explained by laziness. Or let’s call it the Google-syndrome. If the first ten or twenty hits delivered by the search engine call someone a ‘chief UN advisor’, give him the title of ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’, and his company is called something that includes the words ‘university’ and ‘laboratory’ – it’s bound to be truth. But sometimes history goes back beyond the digital archives on the Internet. The dethroning of Heyndrickx took place in 1990, most electronical archives of Dutch and Flemish papers don’t cover that period. Fellow research journalists dug up their paper files on the Belgian toxicologist for me. That is what research is about.

That the organisers of a NATO advanced research workshop don’t prepare themselves any better is equally alarming. And from an illustrious institute like Jane’s one would expect more quality. Intelligence and Insight is their motto. You can trust us.

If they also suffer from the Google-syndrome, it must be in a worrying advanced stage. A toxicologist should have a look at it. But it better be a renowned one.

(1) NRC Handelsblad, 29 oktober 1989

(2) Travels paid by Unita, acknowledged by Heyndrickx in an article written for NRC Handelsblad, 9 Nov 1990

(3) Gould, C. and Folb, P. (2002) Project Coast, Apartheid’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, United Nations Intitute for Disarmament Research, Geneva, Switzerland

(4) See for instance Le Chêne, E. (1985), The outside forces propping up Angola, in The Times (London) September 20. CBMTS-Industry conferences, for instance 2001, Le Chêne, E. Analysing the terrorist Threat, Proceedings CBMTS-Industry II, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

(5) NRC Handelsblad, 20 Oct 1989, 9 Nov 1989, 3 March 1990,19 March 1990, 19 April 1990, 29 March 1991 A picture of Heyndricks in cozy conversation with Jonas Savimbi, can be found in the German Magazine Dritte Welt, nr 11, 1989