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.
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?"
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.
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."