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.
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The Bulgarian nurses were independent contractors in Libya, continuing a practice begun decades ago when communist Bulgaria sent its medics to ideologically friendly nations, many in the Arab world.Skip to next paragraph
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They stand accused of infecting the children in March 1998. But in an academic paper published last week, Nature quoted British evolutionary biologist Oliver Pybus, who asserted after examining young Libyan victims in Rome that the HIV strain derived from West Africa.
"Which makes sense, as Libya has a large population of guest workers from there," Pybus added. The Nature article also said that the virus strain was present in the mid-1990s, well before the Bulgarian nurses arrived.
Since beginning serious negotiations to join the EU in the late 1990s, Bulgaria turned to Brussels for diplomatic assistance in the case.
The campaign on the medics' behalf got a boost in early November, with the signatures of 114 Nobel scientific laureates petitioning for a fair trial involving credible scientific evidence. But the campaign organizer today says he's less optimistic they'll receive one.
"I tend to be pretty cynical, but my guess is that economic interests would trump it," says physiologist Richard J. Roberts, recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize for medicine. "We live in a world where money has become so important as to be a religion, and everything else comes in second."
Both Brussels and Washington have welcomed rapprochement efforts by oil-rich Libya since 2003, when the US-led war in Iraq seemed to convince Mr. Qaddafi to abandon his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. But beyond oil, weapons of mass destruction, and war-on-terror cooperation, other EU-Libyan issues are on the table, such as working together to deter illegal migrants from setting sail from the North African nation. Whether Brussels will exert any leverage is unclear.
"The Libyans want to get closer to the Europeans," says Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London. "When very sensitive issues arise, even judges tend to be aware of factors outside their courts."
Washington has been low-key during the affair, though Libyan media reported that US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, who helped restore US diplomatic ties with Libya, arrived in Tripoli on Friday.
"We have for some time said we think it's important that those nurses and medics be returned to their home country at the earliest possible moment," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack at a Dec. 6 briefing.
In Sofia, meanwhile, ordinary Bulgarians express fatigue with the long ordeal of the nurses and frustration with perceived impotence of both the Bulgarian government and international community to win their freedom.
But opinion on the street is mixed: Some are resigned to the nurses' fate and back the government's stand not to concede guilt; others, though, say the nurses' welfare must be the top priority.
"No one can return these years to them," says a fellow nurse named Vania. "We should pay whatever they want us to, because justice should be served at any cost."