The Tripoli 6 trial has ended without hearing the scientific evidence that could have exonerated the defendants, five Bulagarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of intentionally infecting over 426 children with HIV in a hospital in Benghazi, Libya. The verdict on the case will be announced on December 19. These six unfortunate souls have now spent almost seven years in a Libyan prison, subjected to torture and now (again) an expected guilty verdict and sentence of death by firing squad. They are scapegoats for a failed Libyan health care system whose hygienic failings led to contaminated blood products, needles and instruments that infected the children with HIV and other pathogens, like hepatitis C. Independent scientific investigations by some of the world’s most prominent HIV scientists have shown the infections most likely occurred even before the defendants reached Libya in 1998.
At the conclusion of the trial the legal defense team issued a public statement. It reveals that part of the Libyan strategy is to extort money for the freedom of these health workers:
With respect to the latter, Libyan authorities have demanded that the international community pays $US10 million to each of the more than 400 people infected, and provide them with free treatment for life in European hospitals ? a sum equivalent to the compensation Libya had to pay the 270 victims of its the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1998. It has also demanded the release of one of the terrorists involved, currently in prison in Britain.
On 23 December 2005, a compensation fund was established by several countries, including the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, as well as the European Union (EU). The EU has also taken forward a programme to treat those infected at the Bengazi hospital.
And recently, Libya has sent all the infected children to be treated in European hospitals. But the creation of this fund, a welcome humanitarian step to help the infected children, must not be allowed to mask the responsibility of the Libyan authorities for the negligence that led to infection of the children, much less imply any guilt on the part of the accused.
Welcome as this international generosity is, ultimately compensation for those infected is the responsibility of the Libyan authorities who failed to ensure safe healthcare for their citizens.
We refuse that the fate of the six medical workers should depend on payment of a ransom.
Keeping to strictly legal grounds, we note that the Libyan Supreme Court in its judgement of 25 December 2005, ruled that the rights of the defendants had been violated during the 2004 trial in the Benghazi Criminal Court.
However, not only have these violations not been discussed, in the legal sense, during the current retrial, but the demands of the defence to be allowed the means to establish the truth have been denied. In particular, our demand for international scientific evidence to be heard by the Court has been rejected.
Instead, in August the Court heard 5 Libyan doctors, who testified that they stood by their 2003 report refuting these conclusions of international AIDS experts. Top international scientists who have reviewed the Libyan expert’s 2003 report, however, conclude it contains no evidence, and is of such poor quality as to be inadmissible as evidence in any modern judicial system.
The question of torture suffered by the six has not been discussed, in the legal sense, been during the current retrial, despite the wealth of material evidence demonstrating that this took place — nor has the illicit detention of the defendants for several months at a secret location, nor the question of the duration of detention pending trial has similarly not been discussed, despite their having been imprisoned for more than 7 years.
The legal defense team concludes the trial was neither fair nor impartial, failing to adhere to international legal standards and excluding crucial scientific evidence of the defendants’ innocence.
The legal team also deplored the timidity of Western political leaders and senior officials of internaitonal organizations to speak out. The United States has gone on record publicly as deploring the case, but there is much suspicion they have not pressured Colonel Gaddafi privately. Libyan oil is now again in play and both the US and the EU have a stake in it. Moreover, the moral standing of the US and the UK to decry torture and violations of international law is weak when they themselves retain the right to decide what is torture and have flagrantly violated international law.
The pushback from the international scientific community, its official professional organizations, individual scientists individually and collectively, prestigious scientific journals, like Nature, and the ramified network of websites known as the blogosphere has been impressive. Science bloggers, in particular, have been one of the key elements bringing this case to a wider and vastly different audience than the conventional print and broadcast media or the usual diplomatic channels.
Whatever the outcome — and at the moment the picture looks dark — Libya, Libyan science and the Libyan judicial system are among the damaged. If this case ends badly, as many fear, it will not be soon forgotten. Among the consequences we can expect the international scientific community to regard Libya with suspicion and distrust.
On the other hand, if the appropriate national authorities in Libya review the situation fairly and impartially we can hope for something better for all parties.