Medics await their fate in Libyan HIV case

2006.12.18

A Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses will learn tomorrow whether they must die by firing squad for deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV.

Fifty-two of the children have since died of Aids. The surviving 374 are being treated at hospitals in France and Italy, at the expense of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Ramadan Faitori, a spokesman for the childrens' families, said, "We are confident that the accused group is criminal and will be convicted."

The foreign medical staff were first convicted of the crime and sentenced to die in 2004, but Libya's Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Official media in Libya are declaring that the guilt of the accused is a foregone conclusion. They have been held in jail in Libya since March 1999.

The case has become a focus of tension between Libya and the West, where experts are united in believing that the six have been made scapegoats for a crime they did not commit. Reports by top Aids experts, including one by Professor Luc Montagnier, one of the discoverers of Aids, have exonerated them. Professor Montagnier said the epidemic was probably caused by poor hygiene in the hospital, and pointed out that it had begun before the six started working there, and continued after their arrest.

A report published last week in Nature by a team led by the British evolutionary biologist Oliver Pybus, who studied Libyan children under treatment at Bambinu Gesu Hospital in Rome, also concluded that the epidemic began before the foreign staff arrived. The report identified a likely source of the scourge. "The virus is of a kind found in west Africa," Dr Pybus wrote, "which makes sense as Libya has a large population of guest workers from there."

The long-running and emotional case threatens to harm Libya's relations with the West. In 2003 Col Gaddafi renounced his programmes for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Libya has since resumed full diplomatic relations with Britain and the US, and Col Gaddafi has been received with honour by the leaders of the European Union. But the trial has become a test case of Libya's ability and willingness to become a trustworthy partner.

It has also become a political headache for Col Gaddafi as the city of Benghazi, where the contamination of blood supplies took place, is a hotbed of opposition to his authoritarian rule. The case against the foreigners appears to have become a surrogate way of expressing hostility to the Gaddafi regime.

Earlier this year, Libya offered a way out of the fix: Bulgaria should pay the children's families $2.7bn, the same amount paid by Libya in compensation for the Lockerbie bomb. Sofia rejected the proposal.

The six medics have claimed that they were tortured in custody, but Libyan police and a doctor who they blamed for the attacks were acquitted in trials that finished last year.

David Welch, the US Assistant Secretary of State who helped negotiate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Libya and America, arrived in Tripoli on Friday to discuss "issues which hinder improvements in relations". No details were released. Mr Welch has previously called for the nurses to be allowed to go home.

Of the five nurses, the health of Snezhana Dimitrova is reported to be the most fragile. Formerly a nurse in Sofia, she suffered a nervous breakdown in 2005 and broke her leg in the autumn. She maintains it is inconceivable that a nurse and a mother could commit the crime of which she is accused.


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