The case of the Tripoli 6 — five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor now a Bulgarian citizen (for background see here) — is in its final throes. It is not pretty. After a day’s delay, word has come the Supreme Council has commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment, but with extradition to Bulgaria. We await details and no one with experience in this sad case will breathe easy until the six are on Bulgarian soil.
However this case comes out, scientists and science journalists played a very significant role in its evolution. Nature magazine, now the world’s most prestigious and forward looking scientific journal, played an especially prominent role, and one of its senior correspondents, Declan Butler, worked tirelessly to encourage active engagement by scientists and the science blogosphere. As Nature went to press this week the Libyan Supreme Court had upheld the death penalty and we were awaiting a possible commutation or annulment by the Supreme Council, a political, not judicial body.
The news on the weekend appeared hopeful:
The families of the infected children have agreed to drop their death sentence demands in return for a $460 million compensation negotiated with the help of the European Union and Libya’s Qaddafi Foundation, AFP reported. In the past two days the families began receiving the money and signing a document that will be sent to Libya’s High Judicial Council, AFP said. The families today dropped demands for the death penalty, AFP said, citing a spokesman.
“The case is at its final stage and I hope it will be resolved successfully,” [Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei] Stanishev told reporters in Sofia today. “The process of collecting signatures from the families of the infected children is almost finished. I hope Libya’s High Judicial Council will meet in the shortest time possible.” (Bloomberg)
The subsequent commutation to a life sentence, just announced, is not as good an outcome as could be wished, but if the six are extradited to Bulgaria, a just outcome, which presumably would be a commutation of the sentence altogether, could be arranged by the Bulgarian justice system.
The case has become a diplomatic quagmire following Bulgaria’s entry into the EU on January 1, which made the case broader in international significance. Both the EU and countries like the UK and Italy have played prominent roles in the behind-the-scenses diplomatic activity. The US has not been a factor, limiting its participation to non-committal statements of support for the accused. Since the moral stature of the Bush administration is pygmy-like,this isn’t surprising. American scientists, like Nobel Laureate Rich Roberts, however, have been both active and effective (see Declan Butler’s account in Nature).
These six medical colleagues have been imprisoned for 8 years on charges shown to be empty by the scientific evidence, evidence not admitted on their behalf by the Libyan courts. This is not the only gross abuse of human rights in the world. Far from it. But for us in medicine and public health it is emblematic. The problem is not just the Libyan authorities, for whom the diplomatic mess is unpleasant or worse. The real obstacle is with the families who are blinded by grief, rage, resentment, ignorance and a lust for revenge not qualitatively different from the attitude of many Americans who didn’t care whom they killed as retribution for the 9-11 attacks. The “details” weren’t important for many Americans, just as the “details” here are not important for these families.
So while the Tripoli 6 are just a small feature in a terrible global landscape of human rights abuse, they are also stand for the consequences of ignorance and lust for revenge that can afflict any country.
Even the richest.