Terra Sigillata

Very serious stuff today, folks.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician remain imprisoned in Libya, where they have been since 1999 based on trumped-up charges that they infected with HIV some 400 patients. Misinterpretation and translation mistakes of a key scientific report appear to lie at the center of their cases.

Despite the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Muammar Gaddafi’s government by the US and the EU, a full pardon and release of the “Tripoli Six” (sometime called the “Benghazi Six”) was not part of the deal.

Lawyers Without Borders has been working on their behalf and report that the medical personnel now face execution by firing squad.

The time to act is now.

From our colleague(s), Revere(s) at Effect Measure, who has been in contact with Nature writer, Declan Butler:

Nature is leading the way with a story by Declan and an extremely strong editorial. Declan has some links on blog.

From Butler’s article, where I lifted the title for this post, the key facts are:

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…

…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 [defence attorney Antoine] 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.”…

…”If international pressure isn’t stronger before the appeal, the risk is large that they will be condemned to death,” predicts Michel Taube, co-founder of Together Against the Death Penalty, a French non-governmental organization. “To avoid that outcome, diplomacy is not enough. We need international mobilization.

What can we do to help?

For my part, letters will go to my two US senators and representative in the House to protest this miscarriage of justice and urge that the US exercise all diplomatic means to secure the release of these medical personnel. US and international readers are encouraged to do the same through their representatives.

Mike Dunford will also post at 9 AM EDT/1400 GMT with some other, more concrete diplomatic suggestions for action.


  1. #1 speedwell
    September 21, 2006

    Libya wants 5.5 BILLION DOLLARS (yes, that’s 5.5 Carl Sagans) to release them. You could hire your own army of mercenaries for a very small fraction of that to go in and rescue them. Maybe it’s time for the ultimate blog fundraiser. Heh.

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