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Medics in Libya Sentenced to Death Again

19 December 2006 (All day)
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Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

Accused.
Five of the defendants behind bars in the Tripoli court today.

Scenes of jubilation on the streets of Tripoli, Libya, were matched by protests in Sofia, Bulgaria, today, after a Libyan court ordered the execution of six foreign medics accused of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV. The case has brought Libya into the spotlight in recent months and caused its newly budding relations with the West to hang in the balance.

The medics--five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor--began working at a hospital in the coastal city of Benghazi in 1998. They were arrested the next year; their confessions, which they later recanted, were extracted under torture, according to human-rights experts who have examined them. A Benghazi criminal court sentenced the medics to death in May 2004, but the Libyan supreme court later sent the case back for retrial in Tripoli. So far, 52 of the children have died of AIDS-related illnesses.

Outrage among scientists has been growing worldwide since October, when the Libyan court would not let defense lawyers introduce new scientific evidence. More evidence accumulated earlier this month, when an independent analysis of blood samples from the infected children concluded that the infections had occurred well before the accused medics arrived in Libya (ScienceNOW, 6 December), possibly as early as 1995. Improper sterilization and the reuse of syringes were "routine" in the hospital, says Vittorio Colizzi, a virologist at the University of Rome "Tor Vergata" in Italy, who was invited by the Libyan government to inspect the hospital and interview staff in 2003.

Colizzi and others accuse the Libyan government of scapegoating the foreigners to shield Libyan hospital officials and the Libyan Minister of Health, Muhammad Rashid, from punishment. Many believe that long-time Libyan dictator colonel Muammar Gaddafi has not intervened because Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, has long been a source of political opposition; exonerating the medics could direct anger at Gaddafi's regime. Instead, he has claimed in several speeches that the foreign medics are part of an international conspiracy against his country.

Today's final guilty verdict doesn't mark the end of the legal road. The defense team has one last opportunity to appeal to the Libyan supreme court, which can overturn the sentence. A costly settlement may also still be possible: Libyan officials have long plied Western governments for "blood money"--the traditional Arab legal term for compensation that they say would allow the families to drop their case--amounting to $10 million per child.

Western government officials have been unanimous in their condemnation of the new guilty verdict. Bulgaria's deputy foreign minister, Feim Chaushev, announced that political negotiations would take place between Bulgaria, Libya, the E.U., and the U.S. as early as this evening. Scientists involved in the case are distressed as well. "I'm obviously very disappointed that our new scientific evidence wasn't or couldn't be considered," says Oliver Pybus, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, U.K., who led the recent study of the children's blood.

"Scientific evidence supports that these individuals are innocent of the charges brought against them," says Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, Maryland, and co-discoverer of HIV. "It is the fervent hope and plea of the scientific community ... that this case be quickly resolved to reflect the innocence of the accused."

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