Saturday, April 21, 2007

Author of Lancet Study Denied Entry Into U.S.; Britain Refuses To Allow Him To Stop Over in London on His Way To Canada

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From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

An Iraqi doctor who made international headlines after stating that civilian deaths in the Iraq war far exceeded officially reported numbers is not being allowed to travel to North America to meet other academics.

Riyadh Lafta and his colleagues have been trying for months to get a U.S. travel visa so the doctor could speak at a medical conference at the University of Washington today.

The State Department has cited miscommunication as the reason for the visa holdup.

As an alternative, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., invited Lafta to deliver his lecture today, which was to have been broadcast by video to the UW. But this week, the British government denied him a four-hour transit visa for a stopover between the Middle East and Canada.

Lafta, an epidemiologist, teaches at Al-Mustansiriya University College of Medicine in Baghdad and co-wrote an October 2006 article about Iraqi civilian deaths in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

The UW's School of Public Health and Community Medicine invited him to talk about that study and elevated cancer levels, particularly affecting children, in southern Iraq, said Amy Hagopian, an acting assistant professor.

Hagopian, who is conducting research with Lafta, believes the Bush administration is purposely blocking his travel to the United States. "My hypothesis is the Bush administration was extremely threatened by The Lancet study," she said.

Quite a coincidence, I'd say, that the "miscommunication" between Lafta and the State Department extended all the the way across the pond to the British government, too, eh?

Via Carpetbagger Report, Daniel at Crooked Timber speculates on the dangers of allowing Dr. Lafta to present his colleagues with information about elevated cancer levels in Iraqi children:

What on earth can be in this data? Presumably the UK and US authorities have reasoned that Dr Lafta is an ex Ba’ath Party member (as he would have had to have been to hold a position in the Iraqi Health Ministry), and thus the data he is carrying is not really about child cancer at all. Perhaps he is involved in some sort of “Boys from Brazil” type plot to clone an army of super-soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s DNA, and for this reason the UK cannot be exposed to this deadly information for even four hours in the Heathrow transit lounge.

The alternative – that Dr Lafta is being intentionally prevented from travelling in order to hush up his research on post-war deaths (research which even the Foreign Office have now more or less given up on trying to pretend isn’t broadly accurate), or to hush up the news about paediatric cancer for political convenience – is too horrible to contemplate. I’d note that there isn’t an election on in the USA at present, so the denialist crowd can shove that little slur up their backsides this time too.

Following Tim Lambert's links, the UK Guardian reported last month that documents obtained by the BBC reveal that the British government's own scientific advisers were forced to conclude that the Lancet study's methodology was "robust" and "close to best practice":

Chief government advisers accepted as "robust" research that put the death toll from the Iraq war 10 times higher than any previous estimate, new documents have revealed.

The study, by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, prompted worldwide alarm when it was published in the Lancet medical journal in October last year.

It estimated that 655,000 Iraqis had died due to the violence in the country. It has now emerged chief advisers warned ministers not to "rubbish" the report.

At the time, both the British and US governments were quick to dismiss the peer reviewed study. The Foreign Office said it was based on a "fairly small sample ...extrapolated across the country". Iraqi government data was more likely to be accurate, it added.

The British government's response? It denied the study's conclusions even while it acknowledged that the study's methodology was unimpeachable:

The Ministry of Defence's chief scientific advisor said the research was "robust", close to "best practice", and "balanced". He recommended "caution in publicly criticising the study".

When these recommendations went to the prime minister's advisers, they were horrified. One person briefing Tony Blair wrote: "are we really sure that the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies?" A Foreign Office official was forced to conclude that the government "should not be rubbishing The Lancet".

The prime minister's adviser finally gave in. He wrote: "the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones".

How would the government respond?

Would it welcome the Hopkins study as an important contribution to understanding the military threat to Iraqi civilians? Would it ask for urgent independent verification? Would it invite the Iraqi government to upgrade civilian security?

Of course, our government did none of these things. Tony Blair was advised to say: "the overriding message is that there are no accurate or reliable figures of deaths in Iraq".

Dr. Lafta has been trying to get a U.S. visa since July 2006. His Plan B -- to deliver his speech in Vancouver, from where it would be broadcast to the University of Washington -- fell through on Tuesday, with the Brits' denial of a transfer visa.

The 2006 Lancet study is here.

Cross-posted at Shakesville.

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