Nature’s senior correspondent Declan Butler is one of the print science journalists who understands the internet and its power. He is now part of an effort to see if it can save six lives.
Lawyers defending six medical workers who risk execution by firing squad in Libya have called for the international scientific community to support a bid to prove the medics’ innocence. The six are charged with deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV at the al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in 1998, so far causing the deaths of at least 40 of them. On 28 August, when the prosecution was scheduled to close its case, the Libyan prosecutor called for the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to be sentenced to death. Attorneys from Lawyers Without Borders, who are handling the defence of the six, have responded by calling for the international community to request that the court order an independent scientific assessment, by international AIDS experts, of how the children became infected. The medics were condemned to death in May 2004, but the Supreme Court quashed their convictions last December, following international protests that the first trial had been unfair. It ordered a retrial, which has run intermittently since 11 May at the Criminal Court of Benghazi, based in Tripoli. A verdict is expected within weeks.(Declan Butler, writing in the News section of Nature)
The story goes on to note that so far the scientific community has shown little interest in the case. I expect it’s because most of us haven’t heard about it. Now, thanks to Declan’s story in Nature, accompanied by a very strongly worded Editorial, we have. The question now is whether the scientific blogosphere can help stop this imminent tragedy. Luc Monagnier’s HIV group at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Vittoria Colizzi of Rome’s Tor Vergata university did a genetic analysis of the viruses from the children and concluded many were infected before — perhaps long before — the medics arrived in 1998:
The researchers carried out a genetic analysis of viruses from the infected children, and concluded that many of them were infected long before the medics set foot in Libya in March 1998. Many of the children were also infected with hepatitis B and C, suggesting that the infections were spread by poor hospital hygiene. The infections were caused by subtypes of A/G HIV-1 — a recombinant strain common in central and west Africa, known to be highly infectious. But the court threw out the report, arguing that an investigation by Libyan doctors had reached the opposite conclusion. Montagnier believes the judgement was based at least partly on mistranslation from English to Arabic of the term ‘recombinant’ — instead of referring to natural recombination of wild viruses, as intended, it was interpreted to mean genetically modified, implying human manipulation.
There are other ugly aspects to the case, which without the Montagnier/Colizzi evidence was based partially on confessions extracted under torture. The outraged parents are pressing for an explanation and foreign medics are more convenient than bad medical care. A last ditch attempt now is being made to restore some scientific content to the trial by demanding an independent scientific panel examine the evidence. If the Tripoli court returns a guilty verdict — now considered likely that the scientific evidence has been excluded — the only hope would be an appeal to the Libyan Supreme Court to convene the panel.
This would seem to be a place for diplomatic pressure but the United States and the European Union have looked the other way:
At present, the case has been sidelined by broader geopolitical interests in the opening of oil-rich Libya to international relations, says Antoine Alexiev, another defence lawyer on the case. The United States decided in May to reestablish diplomatic relations with Libya. And Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has been given red-carpet treatment at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels — without mention of the medics’ situation.
That statement is from Declan’s news article. The Nature Editorial is even stronger and blunter:
Despite the medics’ plight, the United States agreed in May to reestablish 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.
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. (Editorial, Nature)
Declan has more on his blog, along with links to some documents, including the Montagnier/Colizzi Report. We need to mobilize the worldwide scientific community and have them communicate immediately with their own Foreign Offices/State Departments and also the Libyan embassies in their countries to demand this independent scientific investigation.
These six are international aid workers. Nurses and a doctor. They are our colleagues, our brothers and sisters in a global war on disease and suffering, now sacrificial lambs in a game of internal Libyan politics. Nature is leading the way on the print side. No one knows what the scientific blogosphere can do. Let’s find out.