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At stake in Libyan HIV trial: EU relations

If a Tripoli court sentences six medics to death Tuesday, Qaddafi could push for reparations in return for clemency.

By Michael J. JordanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2006



SOFIA, BULGARIA

In an eight-year-old case that could harm Libya's improving relations with the West, a Tripoli court will announce Tuesday whether five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor should be sentenced to death for allegedly infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV.

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International HIV experts have concluded that the virus could not have come from the foreign medics in 1998, but was present earlier.

So the case, say observers, is about far more than the scientific evidence. With Bulgaria set to join the European Union on Jan. 1, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi could use the fate of the nurses as a bargaining chip in his country's historically stormy relations with Europe.

"From a scientific point of view, [the medics] are clearly innocent," says Declan Butler, a senior reporter for Nature, the world's top peer-reviewed scientific journal, which has led an international campaign on behalf of the accused. "But there are clearly economic and political stakes here. We have to be vigilant that these six aren't shelved or sacrificed."

Libya has indicated it would offer clemency in exchange for reparations of $13.11 million paid to each of the 426 children's families – an amount that would far exceed the $2.7 billion Libya paid for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland, and spurred Libya's international isolation.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian authorities here would face an unenviable choice: In effect admit wrongdoing by paying compensation for the release of their nurses – women who, in interviews with Human Rights Watch and others, have accused their captors of using rape and torture to extract confessions – or refuse to concede and let them die.

"The position here is, if we pay for de facto hostages, we are politically admitting our guilt," says Emil Tsenkov, an analyst with the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. "It could also encourage similar behavior in the future."

Yet Qaddafi also appears to have backed himself into a corner. The infection took place at the al-Fatah Hospital in Benghazi, a Mediterranean coastal area and hotbed of dissent toward one of the toughest dictatorships in the world. Casting the spotlight on what foreign observers say is probably the real culprit – the Libyan healthcare system – could trigger public outrage and rattle the regime's foundation.

Meanwhile, the families of the infected children – who are now being treated in Italian and French hospitals – demand justice from those whom Tripoli and the state-controlled Libyan media blame: the foreigners.

"It's very difficult to understand the stance of those in solidarity with the accused," wrote the Al-Shams newspaper recently, according to Reuters. "Who deserves greater reason for solidarity – the children who are dying without having committed any offense, or those in white coats who distributed death and wiped the smile from the lips of hundreds of families?"

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