A matter of life and death: scientific judgment without borders.

In Tripoli, Libya, five nurses and a physician are in danger of being executed by firing squad if the international scientific community doesn't raise its voice.

As reported by Nature:

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 [in 2004], 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.

(Bold emphasis added.)

The evidence suggests that the children were infected due to negligence in the hospital -- but not by the six health care providers on trial for their lives. Conveniently, they are foreigners -- a Palestinian physician and five Bulgarian nurses, so the Libyan court and hospital can exact "justice" without accepting anything like responsibility for the errors that infected the children.

But to cast scientific evidence aside so you can put your convenient scapegoats before the firing squad is absolutely intolerable.

As it was put so well in an editorial in Nature:

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.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Sometime the facts don't line up in a way that's politically convenient. But the facts are still the facts, and scientists -- not to mention any legal system worth the name -- have an obligation to the facts. Without the facts, after all, science is no different than politics or storytelling.

It's time for the people of the reality-based community, especially scientists from every nation, to stand up and demand a fair finding of facts in the case of the Tripoli Six. Contact Laywers Without Borders. Get other members of your professional organization(s), your university community, or your government to raise a protest.

Silence is as good as saying the truth doesn't matter.

More from Declan Butler and PZ Myers.

UPDATE: Bill Hooker has a great list of suggested contacts (with actual addresses, phone numbers, etc.) -- clearly, he wasn't throwing together a post between cooking dinner and tucking sprogs in for the night! Thanks, Bill!

Also, Revere notes that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, himself a physician, may be inclined to take an interest in the welfare of medical professionals in situations like this. So, please contact Frist staffer Ken Scroggs to voice your concern (Ken_Scroggs@frist.senate.gov).

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