Wednesday, June 13, 2007

New hope for Libyan AIDS six

The EU said yesterday it has made substantial progress in talks with Libya over the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor. The six, who have spent eight years in prison already, are accused of the murder of 240 children EU officials spent two days lobbying Libyan officials on the weekend and met with Gaddafy's son who is in favour of an early release. A European Commission told a Brussels news briefing that efforts will continue to release the six, but didn't expand on what that will involve. The news came a day after US President Bush called for their release on a state visit to Bulgaria. The six medics have been sentenced to death after they were found guilty of infecting Libyan children with AIDS in a Benghazi hospital in 1998.

The two officials, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, left Tripoli on Monday. Steinmeier visited the five Bulgarian nurses on death row in Judeyda prison. "Libya has showed understanding on the case and I hope it will come to a positive end at my next visit to Jamahiriya [Libya]," said Steinmeier, whose country is president of the EU until the end of this month. His calls were echoed by Muammar Gaddafy son, Saif al-Islam, who praised European efforts to end the stand-off on the case.

Libya claims it will free the medics if an agreement is reached to pay compensation to the families of the children. Tripoli has demanded $13 million for each infected child's family. The EU has rejected this as an admission of guilt. However it has offered a fund for treatment for the children at European hospitals and already donated over $3 million to this plan. In 2005 Libya's ambassador to Britain, Mohammed al-Zaway, said Bulgaria should negotiate with the victims' families of the victims to decide on "dia", or blood money, which Sharia law allows to be paid to victims in murder cases to prevent a death sentence. "Any solution other than negotiations is a waste of time," said al-Zaway. "An agreement with the families of the children would reflect positively on the case according to Islamic law."

The nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death in May 2004 by firing squad for infecting 426 children through contaminated blood products at Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, Libya. They also were ordered to pay a total of $1 million to the families of the HIV-positive children. The Libyan Supreme Court in December 2005 overturned the convictions and ordered a retrial in a lower court. Finally an appeal court convicted the health workers in December 2006 and re-affirmed the death sentence.

The crisis first came to light in November 1988 when a Libyan magazine called “La” published an expose about a mass incidence of AIDS at a Benghazi paediatric hospital. The article quoted the Libyan Health Minister Sulaiman al-Ghemari, who said that most of the 60 known cases were children. The children’s parents blamed faulty blood transfusions for transmitting the virus. The article created a huge stir and countered the official propaganda that Libya was AIDS-free. An outraged Gaddafy shut down the magazine. Despite the shutdown, it soon became apparent that not only was magazine’s allegations correct, it was worse than initially thought. Up to 400 children were infected.

Scapegoats were needed and authorities immediately arrested Filipino, Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian clinic workers on suspicion of organising the spread of the virus. Finally the court filed charges against five Bulgarian nurses, a Bulgarian doctor and a Palestinian doctor. They were charged with premeditated homicide, "activities which led to a massacre designed to sap Libya's strength" and "a violation of the Islamic way of life," according to the Bulgarian foreign ministry. The nurses were also accused of working for the CIA and Mossad. "Nurses from little towns in Bulgaria acting as agents of Mossad?" said a daughter of one of the nurses. "It all sounds funny and absurd until you realize your mother could die for it”.

The six have now been in prison for over eight years. Their names are: Ashraf Ahmad Jum’a, the Palestinian doctor, and Nasya Stojcheva Nenova, Valentinaa Manolova Sropulo, Valya Georgieva Chervenyashka, Snezhanka Ivanova Dimitrova and Kristiana Malinova Valcheva, the five Bulgarian nurses. In 1999, Libya commissioned a World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the growing crisis. The report cited multiple causes but particularly blamed the lack of supplies and equipment including sterilised needles and protective gloves.

At the trial, the six suspects claimed they were tortured and forced into confessions. They said police used many methods including sexual assault, electric shock, hanging by the arms, threats with dogs while the prisoners were blindfolded, and beatings with electric cable on the soles of the feet. It was also reported that police officers forced the nurses to undress before them, put insects on their bodies and set dogs on them. But the defence lawyers were denied access to files and investigation results. The court later rejected the torture claim and the accused police officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

The court also ignored the testimony of Dr. Luc Montagnier, the French discoverer of the AIDS virus and Italian microbiology professor Vittorio Colizzi who evaluated more than 200 of the infected children and found the virus was present at least six months before the Bulgarian nurses arrived at the hospital. Montagnier and Colizzi’s report (pdf) concluded the virus was introduced through a contaminated injection and spread as a result of poor sanitary practices.

But at the trial the judge accepted the confessions backed up by testimony from Libyan medical experts for the prosecution who claimed the medics deliberately injected the AIDS virus into the patients. The six were sentenced to death in December 2006 in front of delighted parents of the infected children. The father of one child told the BBC “justice has spoken out with a ruling against those criminals and the punishment they deserve, because they violated their obligations and sold their consciences to the devil”.

While the fate of the six remains unknown, Libyan children continue to be at risk of AIDS due to poor sanitary practices in hospitals. The Association for Child Victims of Aids in Benghazi told Human Rights Watch in 2005 that 19 mothers of these children are also infected with the virus. The association’s spokesman Ramadan al-Faturi has demanded better training for Libyan doctors and psychological support for the families. “Tell the world that these children are innocent and suffering,” he said.

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