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South Africa health minister fights drink claims

Published:  23 July, 2008

SOUTH AFRICA (Reuters): The country's health minister is fighting newspaper claims she smuggled red wine and whisky into a private hospital to treat AIDS.

The health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, in a statement said that her lawyers had filed an application with the Johannesburg High Court to recover medical records she says are in the possession of South Africa's Sunday Times.

The paper published a front-page story at the weekend saying the minister, nicknamed "Dr Beetroot" for advocating herbal remedies to treat AIDS, smuggled red wine and whisky into a private hospital when undergoing surgery two years ago.

"The newspaper's access to and possession of any of (the minister's) medical records is an unlawful and unconstitutional invasion of her rights," the statement said, adding the newspaper had breached the minister's "privacy and dignity".

The Health Ministry has said the story is false, according to South African media.

Tshabalala-Msimang has angered AIDS activists by promoting natural remedies instead of drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and the report prompted renewed calls for President Thabo Mbeki to sack her. Mbeki has stuck by the minister.

The Sunday Times had declined to hand over the documents, according to a letter posted on its website, and denied it had broken the law.

The paper said the minister had abused her position by ordering hospital staff to fetch her alcohol. It said it spent five months researching the story, and that it had confirmed the facts through hospital records and interviews.

It quoted witnesses as saying the minister, who had a liver transplant this year, had been drunk on several occasions.