Yesterday the Libyan Supreme Council commuted the death sentences of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian-Bulgarian doctor to life in prison. The Tripoli 6 have become a cause celebre in the scientific and diplomatic communities when Libyan courts, after holding them in prison for eight years, refused to hear solid scientific evidence exonerating them from a charge they deliberately infected over 400 children in the Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi. in 1998 (for more background, see here). Poor hospital hygiene is the presumed source of the tragic infections which so far have claimed the lives of over 50 of these children. Life in prison would seem an unhappy kind of victory in this case, but as with all things connected with it, it is not yet the last word.
Complex behind-the-scens negotiations with EU diplomats (Bulgaria entered the EU on January 1, 2007) have resulted in a compensation package for the children and their families to provide them with life long care and a chance for a normal life. Some see this as blatant extortion by Libyan authorities but it can’t be reduced to such a simple formula. The children are also victims in this case and an outcome that provides them with a chance for a healthier life is something of genuine value. If this had been done with charitable funds or foreign aid by EU countries, everyone would agree it was appropriate. It is only because it can also be cast as a ransom payment for the imprisoned medics that many object. This assumes, however, that the Libyan authorities are free agents. In the real world (as opposed to caricatures), even military rulers have to pay attention to opposition forces. Libya’s leader, Colonel Moamer Gadaffi, does have internal opposition and one of its strongholds is in Benghazi. He cannot ignore the grief, rage and desire for revenge of the childrens’ families, who have become a potent political force in Libya and have public opinion on their side. Thus the negotiations are a delicate dance that has had to take the families into account at every step.
Clearing away the thicket of deadly weeds that have grown up around this case is taking an agonizing amount of time. The families first had to sign off on commuting the death sentences, which they did two days ago. Then various side matters, like a charge of defamation brought by a senior police officer they had charged with coercing confessions from them by torture was resolved. Now the Libyan authorities want solid guarantees over the compensation package, whose details are still unknown, before taking the next step. Bulgaria is saying that EU money is being used to upgrade the hospital to modern standards, while the money to be paid to the children and their families is “Libyan money.” The interpretation of this is that it represents EU debt forgiveness or some such complicated formula to allow all sides to save face in a difficult situation.
Assuming these “details” can be worked out, the next step would presumably be extradition to Bulgaria, with whom Libya has an extradition treaty. Extradition papers are said to be on their way to Libyan authorities today:
Bulgaria meanwhile said it had begun steps to secure the transfer of the six medics, and that the relevant documents will be sent to Tripoli on Wednesday.
“The procedure around the transfer… is already underway. I will request that the medical workers be allowed to serve out their sentences at home,” chief prosecutor Boris Velchev said.
Speculation was rife in local media that if the six are transferred to Bulgaria, President Georgy Parvanov will pardon them immediately. (Agence France Presse via Yahoo News)
We hope to be able to report soon the Tripoli 6 have been returned to Bulgaria, where all are citizens. Given the cycle of hope and despair that has characterized this case from the outset, however, we will just have to wait and see.