Pure Pedantry

Medics on Trial in Libya

This is absolutely unacceptable. 6 medical workers are on trial in Libya under the accusation of infecting children with HIV, and if convicted they could be executed. While expert testimony and scientific evidence was presented at the trial, this evidence was thrown out from a combination of miscommunication and what appears to be political bias.

Declan Butler from Nature reports:

Lawyers defending six medical workers who risk execution by firing squad in Libya have called for the international scientific community to support a bid to prove the medics’ innocence. The six are charged with deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV at the al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in 1998, so far causing the deaths of at least 40 of them.

On 28 August, when the prosecution was scheduled to close its case, the Libyan prosecutor called for the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to be sentenced to death. Attorneys from Lawyers Without Borders, who are handling the defence of the six, have responded by calling for the international community to request that the court order an independent scientific assessment, by international AIDS experts, of how the children became infected.

The medics were condemned to death in May 2004, but the Supreme Court quashed their convictions last December, following international protests that the first trial had been unfair. It ordered a retrial, which has run intermittently since 11 May at the Criminal Court of Benghazi, based in Tripoli. A verdict is expected within weeks.

During the first trial, the Libyan government did ask Luc Montagnier, whose group at the Pasteur Institute in Paris discovered HIV, and Vittorio Colizzi, an AIDS researcher at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, to examine the scientific evidence. The researchers carried out a genetic analysis of viruses from the infected children, and concluded that many of them were infected long before the medics set foot in Libya in March 1998. Many of the children were also infected with hepatitis B and C, suggesting that the infections were spread by poor hospital hygiene. The infections were caused by subtypes of A/G HIV-1 — a recombinant strain common in central and west Africa, known to be highly infectious.

But the court threw out the report, arguing that an investigation by Libyan doctors had reached the opposite conclusion. Montagnier believes the judgement was based at least partly on mistranslation from English to Arabic of the term ‘recombinant’ — instead of referring to natural recombination of wild viruses, as intended, it was interpreted to mean genetically modified, implying human manipulation.

According to Alexiev, the decision to throw out the report removed all scientific content from the case, leaving a series of prejudgements, and confessions extracted under torture. “It’s scandalous,” he says. “This is a complex scientific affair, and it is impossible to judge it without a scientific basis.”

Montagnier, whose efforts helped secure a retrial in the first place, says he too is upset by how events in Tripoli are progressing. “It’s a rerun of the first trial,” he says. “It’s embarassing politically for Gaddafi, but there is the pressure of the parents, who absolutely need to find a scapegoat. Of course this can’t be the Libyans, so it falls on the medics.” (Emphasis mine.)

First, the suggestion that medics treating children with HIV are actually infecting them with it is simply farcical. Second, the failure to admit clearly relevant scientific evaluation is an unacceptable breach of justice.

Libya wants to reenter the international community. Well, if they would like to, then it is time to start acting like they deserve it. Also, I feel like the Bush Administration should make this a condition of that reentry. Refreshingly for the first time in a generation, we actually get to have a say in how they do things in Libya. We should use that new found clout to argue for a just society there.

Furthermore, if you have 400 children with HIV and then you punish the people who came to help them, how many other people are likely to come help?

A Nature editorial on the subject had this to say:

The principles of law and science have the common aim of discovering the truth. A previous assessment of the case by two prominent AIDS researchers, Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi, concluded that the charges are false, that the medics are innocent, and that the infections resulted from poor hygiene in Libya’s hospitals. It was not a plot orchestrated by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad, as President Gaddafi alleged in 2001 — an allegation that has driven a popular thirst for vengeance in Libya.

The case is politically embarrassing for Gaddafi. Finding a scapegoat is easier than having to admit that the infection of the children was an accidental tragedy. But the most likely diplomatic compromise — that the medics will be condemned to death, with this being commuted to a life sentence — is unacceptable. They are innocent, and the law and science can prove it, if they get the belated opportunity.

That is why 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.

Butler also has more on his blog.

What can we do? Well I think right now the best thing to do would be to keep bringing the issue up. It would appear that the press and the scientific establishment — while not absolutely silent — have not been talking about this nearly enough. If we can increase the amount of coverage and thereby raise the price politically for Libya’s continued callousness, we might convince them that it isn’t worth it. Hence, at this point I think all press is good press.

So spread the word.


  1. #1 George
    February 8, 2007

    Why The bulgarian midics stay there if they are not gilty for anything.This is so stuped and the Lybian are f mother fucrs