Effect Measure

The Campaign to free the Tripoli Six is entering a new and dangerous phase. On October 31 their trial resumes, with a death sentence again looming. For those not familiar with the case, The New York Times today summarized the situation in a strongly worded editorial:

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor are facing the death penalty in Libya based on preposterous charges that they deliberately infected hundreds of children with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. This looming miscarriage of justice demands a strong warning to the Libyan leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, that his efforts to join the ranks of peaceable nations will suffer if the medical workers are made the scapegoats for the failure of Libya’s own health system.

The doctor and nurses, who had been working at a hospital in Benghazi, were arrested in 1999. They confessed under torture, according to human rights organizations, but later protested their innocence. The charges that they deliberately infected more than 400 children were clearly bogus.

[snip]

The six medical workers were convicted and sentenced to death in 2004, while nine Libyans who worked at the same hospital were acquitted. The convictions were overturned by the Libyan Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial. Defense attorneys fear the same outcome this time. The attorneys are calling for another independent scientific assessment of the case because [exonerating scientific evidence offered by some of the world's foremost HIV virologists] was tossed out by the courts. (NYT)

[NB: You can find out more and see the human face of this horrific case via a full length documentary, Injection, made available free as streaming video by its producer, Mickey Grant. Trailer here, complete documentary here.]

The scientific community is rallying to their cause. The world’s premier science journal, Nature, has led the way and does so again this week in a news article and powerful editorial:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Socialist… Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me.” Martin Niemöller’s poem, criticizing the inaction of German intellectuals in the face of the rise of the Nazis, serves as a powerful analogy for why scientists should be concerned by abuses of academic freedom, wherever they occur.

Most readers of Nature take it for granted that they can travel to work each day, free to enquire, express opinions and criticize government policy, without fear of intimidation or reprisals — let alone imprisonment or torture. Sadly, these freedoms can only be dreamt of in many countries of the world, where academics must live with, and often suffer directly, human-rights abuses. Their plight is our business.

But beyond humanitarian grounds, in this interconnected world we are engaged in a battle of ideas, and the failure to defend any abuse of academic freedom undermines the very principles that guarantee the rights we currently enjoy. Oppressive regimes typically stifle enquiry, as critical minds will inevitably also scrutinize their leaders. Enquiry is further undermined in such environments by the award of senior academic posts to the politically loyal rather than the competent, and the selection of policies or actions that suit governments’ agendas, regardless of the scientific evidence.

[snip]

Tripoli may seem far away, but knowledge and academic freedom are central planks in many other struggles across the world for more open, democratic societies. Academics and universities are often hotbeds of such reform movements, and every year hundreds of academics worldwide consequently face threats, or worse. It is important that we do not forget them.

They have already come for the Libyan medics; it is time to “Speak up” . . . (Nature)

Recently four prestigious scientific leaders in the UK made strong statements (Professor Lord Rees
President, Royal Society; Professor Sir Keith Peters, President, Academy of Medical Sciences; Professor Ian Gilmore,
President, Royal College of Physicians; Professor Thomas Lehner, Kings College, London) (TimesOnline).

But much more needs to be done:

Emmanuel Altit, a lawyer with Avocats sans Frontières based in Toulouse, France, which handling the defence of the health workers, welcomes the renewed pressure as “formidable, exactly the sort of thing that’s needed now”. But adds that pressure needs to be increased and sustained throughout the rest of the trial.

The five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor, who have been in prison since 1999, were sentenced to death in 2004. The verdict was overturned in 2005 by the Libyan Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial that began in May this year. A verdict is expected next month, and the defence team isn’t hopeful.

Although many human-rights groups have supported the six in the past, the Supreme Court ruling led to a false sense of security and international pressure to free the medics dropped, says Zafra Lerman, chair of the subcommittee on scientific freedom and human rights of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The call by a Libyan prosecutor at the end of August for the death penalty came as a shock. “We relaxed too much; we thought the retrial would just see them being released. We didn’t see this new danger coming,” says Lerman, who has won awards for her work in helping to free Soviet dissidents and Chinese scientists jailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

So last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the ACS, Physicians for Human Rights, and Amnesty International issued new human-rights action alerts for the medical workers. In particular, they reiterated last month’s call by the defence lawyers for the court to hear independent scientific evidence. (Nature)

A sidebar in the same Nature article illustrates just what can happen when we weigh in:

Taye Woldesemayat, an academic who was freed from Ethiopian jail in 2002 after years, says he is living proof campaigning by scientists colleagues whose human rights have been compromised can be effective.

In prison, I felt hopeless at beginning; I knew they were going to kill me,” he told Nature. But then the letter-writing campaigns began, and as the letters started flowing in [to the Ethiopian government] it was fantastic, I knew I could get out.”

Woldesemayat was jailed Addis Ababa in 1996 on charges of terrorism and armed conspiracy against the state. Human-rights organizations concluded that he had simply called for greater social justice democracy.

The American Association the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the US National Academy of Sciences weighed in alongside human-rights bodies such as Amnesty International, and the Ethiopian High Court overturned the charges in 2002.

The force of the science and political blogosphere (both Left and Right) has been impressive (for the latest tally and links [currently at 212 posts], see Declan Butler’s Connotea site, here; and check his blog for latest developements).

We are in touch with the lead defense lawyer and will bring you soon his responses to some questions we put to him. In the meantime, there is a list of things you can do, here.

We’ll end this post by repeating some of the Nature Editorial:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Socialist… Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me.” Martin Niemöller’s poem, criticizing the inaction of German intellectuals in the face of the rise of the Nazis, serves as a powerful analogy for why scientists should be concerned by abuses of academic freedom, wherever they occur.

[snip]

Tripoli may seem far away, but knowledge and academic freedom are central planks in many other struggles across the world for more open, democratic societies. Academics and universities are often hotbeds of such reform movements, and every year hundreds of academics worldwide consequently face threats, or worse. It is important that we do not forget them.

They have already come for the Libyan medics; it is time to “Speak up” . . . (Nature)

Addendum, 5:15 pm EDST: As before, the response of the blogosphere has been immediate (within hours). Here at Science Blogs Janet at Adventurs in Ethics and Science has drafted a sample letter for people to use and provided addresses and all you’ll need. John at Stranger Fruit has a post up already, too. Others will be posting over the next few days. Two of the big political sites, DailyKos and TPM Cafe have also posted. The defense attorney is deeply worried but has emphasized the importance of world attention at this critical juncture.

Comments

  1. #1 MoM
    October 14, 2006

    I sent both e-mail and snailmail to my elected representatives when this was first published. That would be Jim (I have No)Talent, Kit (bottled in) Bond,
    and Sam (rubberstamp) Graves. I received exactly NO response.
    Just about what I would expect from my the Republican PUKES that claim to represent me (and don’t).

    I can’t wait until November. With any luck at all, two of these worthless piles of dung will be GONE!

    What else can I do?

  2. #2 MoM
    October 14, 2006

    Aaw c’mon. My [rant mode off] showed up in the preview, but not in the posting. It was supposed to go before “What else can I do?”

  3. #3 revere
    October 14, 2006

    MoM: LOL. Not sure what DIDN’T show up, but a pretty good rant DID show up.

  4. #4 MoM
    October 14, 2006

    ;^)

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