Monday, October 23, 2006

Libya - AIDS hysteria & xenophobia vs. science & sanity

So far science, sanity, and elementary fairness seem to be on the losing end.

This is a long-running story, with many interesting political wrinkles along the way, that now may be nearing a murderous conclusion. Libya is a country that imports a great deal of foreign labor, both unskilled and professional. In 1998 a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses were accused of deliberately infecting Libyan children with the HIV virus as part of a foreign plot orchestrated by the CIA and Mossad. (Khadaffi's government denied that there could be any AIDS in Libya itself, so the disease must have been introduced by foreign agents, preferably working for the US and/or the Zionists. Incidentally, this scenario of a Palestinian doctor infecting Libyan children on Israeli orders illustrates the kinds of paranoid fantasies that hysterical anti-Zionism can render plausible.)

All the available evidence indicates that there was no valid basis for any of these charges--though some confessions were extracted through torture--but the Libyan government pursued this witch-hunt as tool for exploiting political hysteria and xenophobia and making international propaganda points.
Gaddafi offered to free the medics in return for a Lockerbie bomber plus almost $6 billion compensation (which would mirror the amount paid by Libya to families bereaved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103). The offer has been declined by Bulgaria, supported by the European Union and America.
While this grim farce has been unfolding, Libya's whole political relationship to the outside world has been transformed, and even figures in the Libyan elite have hinted that they realize the original charges were bogus, but the process has ground on remorselessly. The Tripoli (or Benghazi) Six are now on trial facing possible execution. The international scientific community has rallied to their support, but without success. In fact, so far the court has refused to allow relevant scientific evidence to be admitted at the trial. The London Times article below offers the latest update on this very depressng story. It concludes:
What matters, of course, is the science; Libya will not allow it into the courtroom. Without it, a murderous miscarriage of justice remains a dreadful possibility.
These points were forcefully driven home in a September 21, 2006 editorial by the science journal Nature, "Libya's Travesty" (also below).
Imagine that five American nurses and a British doctor have been detained and tortured in a Libyan prison since 1999, and that a Libyan prosecutor called at the end of August for their execution by firing squad on trumped-up charges of deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998. Meanwhile, the international community and its leaders sit by, spectators of a farce of a trial, leaving a handful of dedicated volunteer humanitarian lawyers and scientists to try to secure their release.

Implausible? That scenario, with the medics enduring prison conditions reminiscent of the film Midnight Express, is currently playing out in a Tripoli court, except that the nationalities of the medics are different. The nurses are from Bulgaria and the doctor is Palestinian (see page 254). [....]

A previous assessment of the case by two prominent AIDS researchers, Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi, concluded that the charges are false, that the medics are innocent, and that the infections resulted from poor hygiene in Libya's hospitals. It was not a plot orchestrated by the CIA and Israel's Mossad, as President Gaddafi alleged in 2001 — an allegation that has driven a popular thirst for vengeance in Libya.

The case is politically embarrassing for Gaddafi. Finding a scapegoat is easier than having to admit that the infection of the children was an accidental tragedy. But the most likely diplomatic compromise — that the medics will be condemned to death, with this being commuted to a life sentence — is unacceptable. They are innocent, and the law and science can prove it, if they get the belated opportunity.

That is why scientists should lend their full support to the call by Lawyers without Borders — a volunteer organization that last year helped win the freedom of Amina Lawal, who had been sentenced to death in Nigeria for having a child outside marriage — that Libya's courts should order a fully independent, international scientific assessment of how the children were contaminated. [....] Meanwhile, Gaddafi has the opportunity to put this affair behind him by giving the six an immediate pardon.
Read the rest.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
London Times
October 23, 2006
Science rallies to save the Tripoli Six from Gaddafi's firing squads
Anjana Ahuja

Next week five nurses and a doctor will go on trial in Libya accused of deliberately infecting children with the HIV virus, as part of a Western conspiracy to bring suffering and death to what Colonel Gaddafi once proclaimed an HIV-free country. If found guilty at this third trial — they have already been imprisoned for seven years — they face the firing squad.

Luc Montagnier, the French virologist credited with discovering the HIV virus in 1983, has travelled to Libya to provide evidence that could help to exonerate them. But, in an astonishing setback, his submission is unlikely to be admitted as evidence.

Since diplomacy has failed, argues the journal Nature, it is time for scientists to come out in force. In a thundering editorial last month the journal said that “scientific leaders need to use all their influence urgently . . . It is time not only to save the doctor and nurses, but also to defend a common vision of science and law in establishing the truth, above all other imperatives.” Much of that rallying is now being done in the blogosphere (thank you to Declan Butler, Nature’s Paris correspondent, whose blog has provided invaluable updates). The medics’ plight has also prompted a letter to The Times from Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, who cautions that the continuing silence may lead to “judicial murder”.

The details of the case of the Tripoli Six (or the Benghazi Six) are disturbing. The Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor began work in 1998 at a hospital in Benghazi, in the north-east of the country. At the end of that year a cluster of children at the hospital were found to be carrying HIV. A Libyan magazine claimed that poor hygiene at the hospital was to blame.

In the resulting political furore, the homes of hospital workers were raided. The Tripoli Six, along with nine Libyan colleagues, were arrested. The Libyans were acquitted; the foreigners were charged with deliberately infecting 434 children with tainted blood. It emerged that confessions were extracted under torture. No matter — in Gaddafi’s eyes, the defendants were agents of the CIA or Mossad and guilty of unleashing a killer experimental virus on Libyan innocents.

Avocats Sans Frontières (Lawyers Without Borders) took up the case; Montagnier was called in to examine samples of the virus. He concluded that the children must have been infected before the health workers arrived in Benghazi. Some children, Montagnier found, also had hepatitis B and C, strengthening the likelihood that shoddy hygiene practices were responsible. The evidence was backed up by Vittorio Colizzi, an Italian authority on HIV, but was thrown out by Libyan doctors. In an odd twist, one of Gaddafi’s sons has announced his belief that the six are innocent. Meanwhile, 52 children have died.

Gaddafi offered to free the medics in return for a Lockerbie bomber plus almost $6 billion compensation (which would mirror the amount paid by Libya to families bereaved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103). The offer has been declined by Bulgaria, supported by the European Union and America.

What matters, of course, is the science; Libya will not allow it into the courtroom. Without it, a murderous miscarriage of justice remains a dreadful possibility.

===============
Nature
September 21, 2006

Editorial
Nature 443, 245-246(21 September 2006) | doi:10.1038/443245b; Published online 20 September 2006
Libya's Travesty
Six medical workers in Libya face execution. It is not too late for scientists to speak up on their behalf.

Imagine that five American nurses and a British doctor have been detained and tortured in a Libyan prison since 1999, and that a Libyan prosecutor called at the end of August for their execution by firing squad on trumped-up charges of deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998. Meanwhile, the international community and its leaders sit by, spectators of a farce of a trial, leaving a handful of dedicated volunteer humanitarian lawyers and scientists to try to secure their release.

Implausible? That scenario, with the medics enduring prison conditions reminiscent of the film Midnight Express, is currently playing out in a Tripoli court, except that the nationalities of the medics are different. The nurses are from Bulgaria and the doctor is Palestinian (see page 254).

Despite the medics' plight, the United States agreed in May to re-establish diplomatic relations with Libya, 18 years after the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland that killed 270 civilians. Many observers had expected a resolution of the medics' case to be part of the deal. And the European Union has given Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, red-carpet treatment at the European Commission in Brussels.

International diplomacy, dealing as it does with geopolitical and economic realpolitik, by necessity often involves turning a blind eye. But its lack of progress in response to the medics' case in Libya is an affront to the basic democratic principles that the United States and the European Union espouse. Diplomacy has lamentably failed to deliver.

The principles of law and science have the common aim of discovering the truth. A previous assessment of the case by two prominent AIDS researchers, Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi, concluded that the charges are false, that the medics are innocent, and that the infections resulted from poor hygiene in Libya's hospitals. It was not a plot orchestrated by the CIA and Israel's Mossad, as President Gaddafi alleged in 2001 — an allegation that has driven a popular thirst for vengeance in Libya.

The case is politically embarrassing for Gaddafi. Finding a scapegoat is easier than having to admit that the infection of the children was an accidental tragedy. But the most likely diplomatic compromise — that the medics will be condemned to death, with this being commuted to a life sentence — is unacceptable. They are innocent, and the law and science can prove it, if they get the belated opportunity.

That is why scientists should lend their full support to the call by Lawyers without Borders — a volunteer organization that last year helped win the freedom of Amina Lawal, who had been sentenced to death in Nigeria for having a child outside marriage — that Libya's courts should order a fully independent, international scientific assessment of how the children were contaminated.

In 2004, an Editorial in this journal stated, with respect to the medics' case, that "Gaddafi has a chance to show the world that he now understands that true leadership means embracing justice, compassion and a respect for scientific evidence" (Nature 430, 277; 200410.1038/430277a). Two years on, we are still waiting, and Lawyers without Borders is right to hold President Gaddafi and the international community to account.

The scientific community has also been relatively silent on the case, perhaps in the hope that it would be sorted out by diplomacy. But the latter has not proved to be the case, and scientific leaders need to use all their influence urgently, as the fate of the medics will be sealed in the coming weeks. It is time not only to save the doctor and nurses, but also to defend a common vision of science and law in establishing the truth, above all other imperatives. Meanwhile, Gaddafi has the opportunity to put this affair behind him by giving the six an immediate pardon.

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