Thursday, September 21, 2006

Six Medical Professionals, Tortured for Seven Years, Facing Execution in Libya

The Libyan government is on the verge of carrying out a death sentence against six medical professionals who were convicted -- in a show trial based largely on "evidence" gained through torture -- of engaging in a conspiracy with the United States and Israel to infect 400 children with the HIV virus. The case is currently being retried on appeal, but the prospects for an acquittal, in the absence of a concerted and powerful global outcry, do not look good.

PZ Myers has more:

These six medical professionals:

Ashraf al-Hajuj
Valya Chervenyashka
Snezhana Dimitrova
Nasya Nenova
Valentina Siropulo
Kristiyana Valtcheva

were working at the al-Fateh Children's Hospital in Banghazi, Libya in the late 1990s. A year later, about 400 children were diagnosed with HIV; the doctors and nurses were accused of conspiring with Israel and the USA to intentionally infect children with the disease, and were thrown into jail.

Five years later -- five years spent in a Libyan jail, where they were tortured with electric shocks and beatings, and two of the nurses were raped! -- defenders were able to show that the children were largely victims of HIV exposure prior to the arrival of the accused, and that the real culprit was a policy of poorly trained staff, unsterilized equipment, and generally shoddy hygiene. It didn't matter; they were convicted in a sham trial, and sentenced to death by firing squad.

They appealed (wouldn't you?) and are now being retried. Prospects look bleak. Libyans celebrated joyfully when the initial verdict was cast down, and Mouammar Gaddafi ... well, let's just say that having a megalomaniacal dictator running the country in which the trial takes place does not encourage much hope for a merciful intervention. The Libyans are now demanding $5.5 billion in compensation if they are to release the prisoners.

An editorial published today in Nature notes the disgraceful response by the United States and the European Union, and asks whether the response would have been different if the doctor and five nurses sentenced to execution by firing squad had been American or British instead of Palestinian and Bulgarian:

Imagine that five American nurses and a British doctor have been detained and tortured in a Libyan prison since 1999, and that a Libyan prosecutor called at the end of August for their execution by firing squad on trumped-up charges of deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998. Meanwhile, the international community and its leaders sit by, spectators of a farce of a trial, leaving a handful of dedicated volunteer humanitarian lawyers and scientists to try to secure their release.

Implausible? That scenario, with the medics enduring prison conditions reminiscent of the film Midnight Express, is currently playing out in a Tripoli court, except that the nationalities of the medics are different. The nurses are from Bulgaria and the doctor is Palestinian (see page 254).

Despite the medics' plight, the United States agreed in May to re-establish diplomatic relations with Libya, 18 years after the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland that killed 270 civilians. Many observers had expected a resolution of the medics' case to be part of the deal. And the European Union has given Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, red-carpet treatment at the European Commission in Brussels.

International diplomacy, dealing as it does with geopolitical and economic realpolitik, by necessity often involves turning a blind eye. But its lack of progress in response to the medics' case in Libya is an affront to the basic democratic principles that the United States and the European Union espouse. Diplomacy has lamentably failed to deliver.

Then again, it might be a bit awkward for the United States to criticize Libya -- since that would put the Bush administration in the position of suggesting that torture-induced confessions are illegitimate.

Declan Butler links to a report

... on the matter by Luc Montagnier, whose group at the Pasteur Institute in Paris discovered HIV, and Vittorio Colizzi, an AIDS researcher at Rome's Tor Vergata University, which concluded the innocence of the medics, and that the infections were caused by poor hospital hygiene.

and has set up a collection of links related to the case at

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