The Tripoli Six - Do Something About It. [updated]

A senior science reporter at the journal Nature, Declan Butler, put out an urgent request for bloggers to help draw attention to the plight of the Tripoli Six - five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician that are on trial accused of deliberately (as agents of Israel and the United States) infecting 400 Libyan children with the HiV virus while working at a Libyan hospital. An independent scientific review conducted by highly respected French and Italian researchers found no evidence of deliberate infection, but their review was discarded because it disagreed with the conclusions of Libyan researchers.

The real issue here, of course, is that scapgoating someone else is a convenient way of avoiding dealing with the real issues - the poor hospital proceedures that, starting well before these medics even began to work in Libya, resulted in so many children contracting HIV. If you pick some "criminals" and shoot them, you might not have to fix the real problem, and you won't have to take any of the blame yourself. If the "criminals" are foreign, and you can pin everything on Israel and the US, you might even gain some politial points from it. If the foreigners are from small countries without much international clout, that's a nice bonus - it'll be easier to shoot them, and you probably won't have to worry about little things like an air strike or special forces raid.

These six people have already been condemned to death by the Libyans once. There is, unfortunately, little hope that the outcome from this trial will be different. Without major diplomatic pressure, there is no hope. Although this travesty of justice has been ongoing for several years already, the scientific community has been largely silent on this issue so far. The editors of Nature think this needs to change. They are right.

From the Nature editorial:

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.

We can blog about this matter, and you can read about it, but that will do little to actually help. We need to do what little we can to act. Supporting Lawyers Without Borders, who are defending the medics, is one way. There are others.

This is a case where calling and writing your elected representatives, scientific organizations, the State Department, and the Lybians can help. Those are the people who can do something about this situation, either by doing the right thing (in the case of the Lybians) or by bringing diplomatic pressure to bear. Those are not, for the most part, people who are going to be in the habit of reading blogs. They're not going to see the outrage in our posts or in your comments here. If you want to do something more than just get mad, if you want to try to change things, you will need to do more than read blog articles and post comments. You need to write people. You need to call people. You need to send faxes and emails.

Here's why:
Believe it or not, politicians pay lots of attention to what their constitutents are saying. Every elected official out there has at least one staffer responsible for reading and classifying feedback. They track these things by issues, and you can safely bet that the politician will get regular reports on what their constituents are concerned about. If enough of the voters start to care about an issue, it will make it onto their radar.

Here's how:
Writing an original letter yourself, addressing the envelope, putting on a stamp, and mailing the thing takes longer than any of the other methods for contacting the elected official. Congresscritters and their staffers know this well, and they do take that into consideration. That makes it worth doing. If you can come up with any way to find the time, I strongly encourage you to write your own letter. Mail it to as many of the people I list below as you can.

When you write a letter to an elected official, be clear, be concise, and be respectful. If at all possible, keep the letter to no more than one page in length. Make sure that you identify the reason for the letter in the first paragraph, and make sure that you clearly state what you expect the elected official to do. In this case, I would suggest telling them that you would like to see our government publicly inform the Libyans that this conduct is unacceptable, and that there will be consequences if they continue down this path.

Form letters aren't taken as seriously as original letters, but they do help, too. I'll try to write this weekend and post it here for anyone who wants to cut and paste it.

Emails should be written just like a letter, but you should be aware that they are not given the same weight as a snail-mail letter.

Phone calls can work, too. If you call, you might benefit from having a script in front of you. Again, it's important to make sure that you make your points clearly and concisely. The less time you take up, the happier the staffer you talk to will be. If you make your point clearly, they will be more likely to get it right when they put it on the communications report.

Here's who:
1: Libya. This is probably going to be the least effective, but it's still worth a try - and you never know, it might just work. The Libyans have invested a huge amount of effort in trying to regain international respect, so there's at least a small chance that they might be responsive.

I'd suggest mailing letters to a Libyan embassy. For Americans, the best choice would be the Libyan UN Mission.
Mission of Libya to the United Nations
309 - 315 East 48th Street,
New York, NY 10017

The phone number for the UN mission is: (212) 752-5775

Email: The Center for Nursing Advocacy has an online form and form letter. The email address that they are using is: I have not used that address myself, and cannot vouch for whether or not it works.

2: Your own Congresscritters.
Get in touch with your own representatives. Feel free to remind them that you vote in their districts (if this is true.) Contact them even if their political views are totally opposed to your own, and particularly if they also sit on a key committee.

As long as you know your zip code, this website will quickly provide you with the contact information for your representatives.

3: Key congressional committees.

Contact the majority and minority leaders of the House Committee on International Relations and the Senate Foreign Relations Committees.

Committee Chair: Richard Lugar
Ranking Member: Joseph Biden

Mailing Address:
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-6225

Majority Phone: (202) 224-4651
Minority Phone: (202) 224-3953

Chair: Henry Hyde
Ranking Member: Tom Lantos

Mailing Address:
House Committee on International Relations
2170 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Other contacts:
Phone: (202) 225-5021
Fax: (202) 225-2035

4: Executive Branch Officials.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Main Switchboard:

President George Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Comments: 202-456-1111
Switchboard: 202-456-1414
FAX: 202-456-2461

The same letter, with few modifications, can be sent to all of the politicians on this list. Go for it. Postage isn't that expensive, and letters can make a difference. If people don't tell their representatives that they should care about something, it will be hard to blame them for doing nothing about it.

5: Scientific Organizations.

The Nature editorial that I quoted makes a compelling case for scientists to get involved in this. Tell other scientific organizations - particularly ones that you might be a member of - that this is an issue worth taking a stand on.

The largest organization of scientists in the US is the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. If you subscribe to the journal Science, you're an AAAS member. Tell them to join the editors of Nature in taking a stand.

Alan I. Leshner
AAAS Chief Executive Officer
1200 New York Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: 202-326-6400

I'm sure many of you are members of other organizations. Look for the contact information for those groups, whatever they are, and get in touch with them.

If you are angry about what's being done to these poor medics, channel your anger into something productive, and start writing letters. The more of us who do, the better the chances are of accomplishing something.

[UPDATE: 21 Sept 1120 EST]
Another of the Sciencebloggers pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is an MD, and that he is sensative to threats against medical providers. Given his position in the majority, he's in a position to help.

Office of Senator Bill Frist
509 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

I've been given this email address for one of his staffers:

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I would reccommend contacting Senator Elizabeth Dole (R) NC, as well.

Senator Dole was President of the Red Cross for 8 years so she is one Senator who might take this situation very personally.

Her contact information:

Raleigh Office:
310 New Bern Avenue
Suite 122
Raleigh, NC 27601
Ph: 919.856.4630
Toll Free: 866.420.6083
Fax: 919.856.4053

Washington office

555 Dirksen Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Ph: 202.224.6342
Fax: 202.224.1100


Unfortunately, Elizabeth Dole is an extremely conservative Evangelical Christian who deliberately, severely hampered the AIDS/HIV program while at the Red Cross. If interested, you can read an article about it here: The Red Cross: A Question of Competence. It's unlikely she'll be of much use, as she is of the "blame the victim" school. I would not expect much from her.



 Five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor were falsely accused of causing the death of some Libyan children, were tortured into confessing, and are now in prison in Tripoli awaiting execution by firing squad. A scientific investigation showed the children actually died due to unsanitary practices in the hospital.

Libya wants to continue to profit from its recently restored relationship with the U.S. Surely we can use our influence to save the Tripoli Six. Please contact the State Department to add this to their list of priorities.

By Susan Raybuck (not verified) on 23 Sep 2006 #permalink

This really looks extremely serious. Has anyone thought about:

1. Protest outside the Libyan embassy.

2. Get science organizations and universities to boycott Libyan researchers and students funded by the Lybian government. Any Libyan dollars are tainted as long as this is going on, and it is typically the elites of a country, their relatives, etc., that are impacted by such bans. They get cut off, and they will start to put pressure on the people that matter in Libya.

Has it been taken into consideration that paper postage is seriously delayed while it's screened in security? Some Congresspeople even say as much on their websites.