End in sight for medics' Libyan ordeal

A $400 million package is believed to have saved the lives of six foreign medics who faced death penalties on charges of infecting Libyan children with HIV.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Libya closed its latest major spat with the world community when the families of 426 Libyan children asked that six foreign medics accused by the government of deliberately infecting the children with HIV be spared the death penalty.

The victims’ families agreed to a settlement Tuesday and asked that the sentences be removed after their lawyers said each family had received their share of a deal for about $400 million. The Libyan Supreme Court had upheld death sentences for the medics last week.

Libya’s top judicial body met Tuesday to decide whether to commute the executions, issue a pardon, or determine other punishments. According to the Associated Press, who quoted an anonymous Libyan official, the court decided later on Tuesday to commute the death sentences but imposed life sentences on the medics.

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"We have notified in writing that the families have relinquished their demand for the execution" of the six medics, Idriss Lagha, the head of the Libyan-based Association for the Families of HIV-Infected Children, told the Associated Press.

The May 2004 decision to sentence the six to death met with an international outcry, and in the aftermath the European Union and the Bulgarian government pressed the Libyans hard to commute the sentences or free the healthcare workers altogether. Diplomatic pressure from the international community ramped up last week when the country's top court upheld the death sentence.

While the nurses and doctor confessed to the crimes, they say that those confessions were only given under torture. Today, they deny having anything to do with the infections that resulted in the death of 50 children. Experts have also concluded that the children were contaminated due to unhygienic conditions at the hospital in the city of Benghazi.

Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, told a French newspaper the $400 million would be paid to the families and financed through debt remission, the Associated Press reported.

On Tuesday, Bulgaria's foreign minister said that the country would consider contributing to humanitarian aid to Libya, AP reported. In previous published reports, Bulgaria said it would not pay any compensation as that would imply guilt.

The case came to a head after eight years partly because of Libya's dramatic change in international relations. The country now enjoys full diplomatic relations with the US and EU. Trade sanctions and its outcast status have been dropped. In return, Libya renounced support for militant groups; ended a weapons of mass destruction program; allowed key Libyan suspects in the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people to go on trial; and agreed to $2.7 billion in payments to families of those killed in that bombing.

The final Lockerbie payment is still outstanding, a point of tension between Libya and the US. The medics' case has been inexorably linked to the Pan Am bombing. Initially, the Libyan government demanded that the families of the infected children receive $10 million each, matching the amount allocated to some families of the victims of the Pan Am bombing.

Libya also wants Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted and serving a life sentence for the Pan Am bombing, to be freed. In late June the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled that Mr. Megrahi had the right to a second appeal after evidence was uncovered that indicated he may have been wrongly convicted. Earlier this month, a UN observer appointed to watch the case wrote the British government demanding a complete new trial in light of the evidence.

"In all this negotiation there have always been two lines. One issue was for us to give money for compensation. The second was to deal with al-Megrahi – the Lockerbie guy," says Georgi Milkov, a Bulgarian journalist for the newspaper 24 Hours who has covered the case and is currently in Libya. "It is connected with our case. The people who are negotiating [the Lockerbie settlement] case are the same people who are negotiating in our case."

On both sides of the issue has been a heated national constituency placing enormous pressure on their governments not to give in.

Libyan parents of the infected children threw rocks at police and fought with them last year after a decision on one of the appeals in the case was delayed. Benghazi is historically a trouble spot for the regime where just last spring Islamists rioted against the iron-fisted police state.

In Bulgaria, the nurses, as well as the doctor who has since been granted Bulgarian citizenship, have become a national cause.

"Still now in Bulgaria you can find people who want to go to war against Libya, to cut absolutely relations, to not make deals, to close the embassy, and ask our friends from NATO to invade," says Mr. Milkov.

For the closed-off and secretive Libyan regime, the case is also a window into its normally opaque political system.

"It's an issue that goes to the heart of an internal fight going on inside Libya between the revolutionaries and reformers," says Dierderik Vandewalle, an associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College and author of several books on Libya.

"[Muammar] Qaddafi is trying to prove it's a Libyan issue [of] 'we won't bow to pressure.' But reformers are saying, 'We really need to get this resolved. We're just shooting ourselves in the foot,' " says Mr. Vandewalle.

"One important factor here was the cost domestically," says Haizam Amirah Fernandez, an author of several books on Libya and analyst at el Cano Institute in Madrid. Qaddafi needed to show that Libya "didn't accept pressure from outside and the [won] payments to the families---this is important in a tribal community."

“One important factor here was the cost domestically,” says Haizam Amirah Fernández, an author of several books on Libya and an analyst at Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid. Qaddafi needed to show that Libya “didn’t accept pressure from outside and [won] payments to the families,” he says. “This is important in a tribal community.”

Libya's international isolation at the time the medics were arrested – as well as Mr. Qaddafi's assertions that HIV, and the AIDS disease it causes, was a plot by the West to control Africa – "fit in with the revolutionary rhetoric and now it became so much a part of that rhetoric he really can't back down," says Vandewalle.

The spotlight on the charges of torture leveled by the medics against Libyan police did result in the unusual circumstance of the police being tried in Libyan court. They were found innocent.

But that has not translated into better treatment for average Libyan prisoners, says Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights Watch's North Africa and Middle East division.

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