Free the Tripoli Six!

These six medical professionals:

Ashraf al-Hajuj
Valya Chervenyashka
Snezhana Dimitrova
Nasya Nenova
Valentina Siropulo
Kristiyana Valtcheva

were working at the al-Fateh Children’s Hospital in Banghazi, Libya in the late 1990s. A year later, about 400 children were diagnosed with HIV; the doctors and nurses were accused of conspiring with Israel and the USA to intentionally infect children with the disease, and were thrown into jail.

Five years later — five years spent in a Libyan jail, where they were tortured with electric shocks and beatings, and two of the nurses were raped! — defenders were able to show that the children were largely victims of HIV exposure prior to the arrival of the accused, and that the real culprit was a policy of poorly trained staff, unsterilized equipment, and generally shoddy hygiene. It didn’t matter; they were convicted in a sham trial, and sentenced to death by firing squad.

They appealed (wouldn’t you?) and are now being retried. Prospects look bleak. Libyans celebrated joyfully when the initial verdict was cast down, and Mouammar Gaddafi…well, let’s just say that having a megalomaniacal dictator running the country in which the trial takes place does not encourage much hope for a merciful intervention. The Libyans are now demanding $5.5 billion in compensation if they are to release the prisoners. This is nothing but a showy and high-priced extortion plot.

Declan Butler has put out a call for more awareness and more vocal protest of the plight of the Tripoli Six, and Nature has published a strongly worded editorial.

…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.

I agree. The prisoners should be immediately released, and if Gaddafi is actually interested in correcting the tragic problems that led to the infection of 426 children with HIV and hepatitis, he’d be better off eschewing this disgraceful scapegoating and instead encouraging a deeper and more honest investigation into the tragedy—something that might help correct problems in Libyan hospitals and avert future adversity.