Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

April 22, 2011

A population density map to help provide context to my nuclear power plant proximity analysis

Filed under: Energy,Google Earth,Nuclear,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:50 pm

Following on from the population analysis I published yesterday estimating quantitatively how many people live within certain distances of each of the world’s nuclear power plants, some people have asked me for more information on population distribution itself, and whether it might provide more spatial context for the results of the analysis — for example is the plant close to urban sprawl from a major city. Or why is it that nuclear power plants in France, for example – which with 58 nuclear reactors, is second only to the United States (which has 104) in terms of numbers of nuclear reactors — tend to have fewer people living near to most of them, compared with, for example, much smaller nuclear power nations such as Germany?

So to try provide some more visual geographical context, today I’ve mashed together the results of the analysis I published yesterday in Nature — see here my 3D map of the results of that analysis — with a new very high-resolution global population density Google Earth map for 2010 created by the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center operated by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The underlying data is the same as we used in our previous analysis.

Mashing the two maps together certainly does provide this sort of greater context, but the result of combining them is also a bit visually overwhelming, and may be confusing at first. — so beware.

Here’s a screenshot — you can find the full 3-D interactive mashup of the two maps below the fold.


April 21, 2011

A GIS analysis of the number of people living near each of the world’s nuclear power plants

Filed under: Energy,GIS,Google Earth,Nuclear,Nuclear accidents,Uncategorized — admin @ 10:19 pm

I’ve published in Nature tonight a GIS analysis I did with the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center operated by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), looking at how many people live within certain distances of each of the world’s nuclear power plants.

It shows, for example, that two-thirds of the world’s power plants have more people living within a 30-kilometre radius than the 172,000 people living within 30 kilometres of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Some 21 plants have populations larger than 1 million within that radius, and six have populations larger than 3 million. One hundred and fifty-two nuclear power plants have more than 1 million people living within 75 kilometres.

I’ve published the full results in the form of a map which is best viewed using the desktop version of Google Earth — you can download my map file here. The map plots every one of the world’s nuclear plants with circle size indicating the number of people living within 75 km of each plant. Moving the mouse over any circle brings up a label, and the figure for the size of the population. Clicking on any of the plant symbols opens up an information panel showing data for population estimates at 30, 75, 150 and 300 km from the plant, as well as the total power output, and a photograph of the plant.

I did this map fairly quickly, and will add a scale etc soon. Feedback welcome. I can also be contacted at

I’ll try to publish soon the full raw dataset that we created.

Here’s a screenshot of just one of the plants on the map: Indian Point, near New York.


How population sizes were estimated

To estimate the size of populations living near nuclear power plants, Nature first created a map, based on the Power Reactor Information System database, an up-to-date database of nuclear reactors that are operational or under construction, supplied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA does not provide latitudes and longitudes for the reactors, so we obtained many of these by doing a database merge with the older UNEP-GRID reactor database, which contains data, including geographical coordinates, on reactors up to the year 2000. We manually geocoded remaining entries that lacked coordinate data.

To derive the population estimates, Nature teamed up with CIESIN, whose Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project (GRUMP) population database is one of the best available data sets of global population density. The team, and in particular CIESIN scientists Kytt MacManus and Liana Razafindrazay, overlaid the reactor map with GRUMP population maps for the years 2000 and 2010 in a geographic information system and computed population estimates for both years using concentric zones drawn at 30, 75, 150, 300, 600 and 1,200 kilometres from each nuclear power plant.

April 15, 2009

“John Maddox 1925-2009. In memory of a transformative editor of Nature.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 8:43 pm

Nature tonight carries a special section dedicated to the sad news of the death on 12 April of Sir John Maddox, who was editor of Nature for many years. In an Editorial — In memory of a transformative editor of Nature.– Philip Campbell, the present editor of Nature, pays tribute to John, capturing much of the essential of an extraordinary character, a giant, who forged much of what Nature has become since — the New York Times, and other media outlets also have obituaries.

Excerpt from the Nature editorial:

“It was with great sadness that I and my colleagues at Nature learned of the death on Sunday of Sir John Maddox — or ‘JM’, as his colleagues always referred to him.

There was puzzlement, too. Yes, John had been looking frail recently, but, well, this was JM — the perpetually restless, irresistible, unstoppable force. The editor who conducted some gatherings with ‘shock and awe’ as some recall. The ‘man with a whim of iron’ as others used to call him. And the man who survived countless cigarettes and glasses of red wine, many consumed late into the night as he wrote the week’s Editorials at the last possible moment.”

The Editorial also highlights that John founded science journalism at Nature — he saw journalism as on a par with science, as being about uncovering truth — at a time when science journalism barely existed.

“He also established a strong tradition of journalism in Nature. John was a man of many parts but above all he was a journalist, and took pride both in the label and in the craft. He had trained and researched as a physicist, he had an all-consuming intellect, he absorbed research as fast as he could read it — and he was a virtuoso science writer, coming to Nature with substantial experience as a newspaper science correspondent. Many leading writers and editors in today’s science media passed through Nature during his time, and learned above all how to recognize and seize moments of editorial opportunity even if, many a time, flying by the seat of one’s pants. He established the ‘voice of Nature’ in unsigned Editorials (although the voice was often unmistakably his own). And he led the way in developing extensive supplements in which he reported and opined over many pages, often compelling in their narrative, his penetrating perceptions of the state of science and its leadership in this country or that.”

John hired me in 1993, during a long and stimulating breakfast job interview in the Lutetia hotel in Paris, and I’ve fond memories from my early years at Nature of his formidable character and intellect: — he taught me a lot. As Nature’s Editorial tonight ends on: “JM was unique, and those of us who knew him and learned from him will feel the world to be a smaller place in his absence. But his was a powerful spirit, and we continue to thrive on it.”

January 28, 2009

An appeal to President Ahmadinejad

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:57 pm

An appeal to President Ahmadinejad; that’s the title of the lead Editorial in tomorrow’s Nature. I’ve appended some excerpts from the Editorial below. I’ve also an accompanying news story here — note all Nature news stories are free to access for one week — which describes the facts of the case, which I blogged about earlier here.

In short,

Iran has sentenced two of the country’s HIV researchers to prison for communicating with an “enemy government” and plotting to overthrow the state. Arash and Kamiar Alaei, who are brothers, underwent a half-day trial on 31 December in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Kamiar was sentenced to three years in prison, and Arash to six.

The Iranian authorities notified the physicians’ lawyer, Masoud Shafie, of the verdicts on 20 January. He has 20 days to appeal and intends to do so; the brothers say they are innocent.

The Alaeis were arrested last June, and their detention and trial were “unfair even by the draconian standards of Iran’s penal code”, says Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for Physicians for Human Rights, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information see Physicians for Human Rights’ special website on the case which includes action steps that you can take, including a petition.

Excerpts from the Editorial

Iran now has one of the best prison programmes for HIV in not just the region, but in the world,” exclaimed Hamid Setayesh, the UNAIDS coordinator for the country, in 2006. “They’re passing out condoms and syringes in prisons. This is unbelievable. In the whole world, there aren’t more than six or seven countries doing that.”

Human-rights organizations who have examined the brothers’ cases say that their detention, which began in June last year, and their convictions on 31 December in a closed trial lasting barely half a day, both fell far short of the minimum international legal norms for a fair and equitable procedure.

An especially puzzling aspect of the case is that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly supported international collaboration in science. Speaking at Columbia University in New York in September 2007, he invited Columbia faculty members and students to work with their counterparts in Iran. “You’re officially invited,” he said.

Such dialogue — ‘smart power’ — should be encouraged by all sides, because cooperation in the relatively apolitical areas of medicine and science keeps open rare avenues of back-channel diplomacy. Unfortunately, ‘dumb power’ is currently prevailing. The action of the Iranian judiciary in this case can have only a chilling effect on such activities, and there have been ill-considered moves elsewhere. Prime examples are the shortsighted visa policies being pursued by nations such as France, which unjustly discriminate against Iranian researchers (see Nature 456, 680–681; 2008), and the Bush administration’s declaration that the United States is seeking regime change in Iran by supporting ‘pro-democracy’ elements there. Academics in Iran who desire reform, but by self-determination, say that such covert US policies have left them vulnerable to the same charges faced by the Alaei brothers. More smart power is needed all round.

President Ahmadinejad. Your country’s HIV-prevention programme has won respect in the Muslim world and beyond. As you said at Columbia University, the open scientific and medical dialogue needed to progress in issues such as the fight against AIDS must be above the contemporary realpolitik of broader political issues. We urge you today to request the appropriate authorities to review the cases of Arash and Kamiar Alaei so that the truth may prevail.

November 17, 2008

What impact will the financial crisis have on science & innovation?

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:25 pm


Nature has launched a special on what the financial crisis might mean for science and innovation. It already includes more than a dozen articles and will be continually updated. It’s all on free access.
If you want a great easy-to-understand 4-page overview, your first stop should be this feature — Science in the meltdown by lead writer, Mitch Waldrop, my colleague in DC — and an accompanying editorial — Danger and opportunity — both of which I’d a hand in.
To see a complete list of the articles, go to Special: Financial Crisis.

November 5, 2008

How America really voted yesterday + maps going back to the 1960’s

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:39 pm

This morning the 8-year old son of a friend of mine looked at a map of the electoral results online and said: “I don’t understand; Obama won, but the map is all red.”

Too right. Maps of the results of the US presidential election usually show up as a patchwork of red and blue states across the country. But visualizing votes by the geographical area of states distorts the true picture — a state with a large area but relatively small population will dominate, whereas small states with large populations vanish from view. Indeed, despite this election’s convincing Democrat victory, conventional maps depicting the election results again show a nation awash with red.

Here, I map the results as a cartogram, which adjusts the area of the states on the basis of the number of electoral college votes [number given in brackets in map] they represent. This — as can be seen from the dominance of blue — gives a more accurate picture of how the United States voted in 2008.

In passing, to see Nature’s complete coverage of the election, click here.
Nature, for the first time since its creation in 1869, this year endorsed a US presidential candidate — see here:
Quote: “This journal does not have a vote, and does not claim any particular standing from which to instruct those who do. But if it did, it would cast its vote for Barack Obama.”

Election: 2008
President: Barack Obama [D]
Main Opponent: John McCain [R]
Electoral Vote: Winner: 349 (as of 4/11/2008 with NC & MO still to be called)
Vice President: Joe Biden
V.P. Opponent: Sarah Palin

Technical note: the cartograms were generated using the ScapeToad software implementation of the Newman–Gastner algorithm. This algorithm was developed by Mark Newman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Michael Gastner at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and was first used in the US 2004 presidential elections (M. T. Gastner and M. E. J. Newman Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 7499–7540; 2004)
Mark Newman tells me that has posted his cartograms of yesterday’s elections here, which go into even great detail. Well worth a look.

Here are cartograms of some past presidential elections, going back to the 1960’s, with area adjusted for the electoral college votes attributed to each state for that election — they have changed over the past 40 years. The map below is of the 2004 election; click “Continue reading” to see the rest. Note: I’ve generated these quickly from a database, so let me know if you spot any errors
Data and notes extracted from US national archives.

Here’s the rest:

Election: 2004
President: George W. Bush [R]
Main Opponent: John F. Kerry [D]
Electoral Vote: Winner: 286
Popular Vote: Winner: 60,693,281
Votes for Others John Edwards (1)
Vice President: Richard B. Cheney (286)
V.P. Opponent: John Edwards (252)
Notes: One Minnesota elector voted for John Edwards for both President: and Vice President:. During the counting of the vote in Congress, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and Sen. Barabara Boxer (D-Calif.) raised objections to the Ohio Certificate of Vote alleging that the votes were not regularly given. Both houses voted to override the objection, 74 to 1 in the Senate and 267 to 31 in the House of Representatives.


September 17, 2008

Some cartograms of US science & technology

Filed under: GIS,Open data,Uncategorized,Venture capital — admin @ 7:38 pm

As anyone who has visited WorldMapper knows, cartograms are an interesting way of visualizing date on geographical areas. I’ve an article in Nature tonight where I’ve generated cartograms for some indicators on US science and technology.
Some excerpts at end below, and also a Picasa slideshow of some of the cartograms — it’s the first time I’ve used the Picasa embed, and its too subliminally speedy. You can press the stop button, and then click back and forward on the below, and there is allso a static version where you can just click through the slides at a normal human pace ;-> — click this link to the Picasa album.

The cartograms reveal the United States distorted in proportion to a variable other than area — such as state spending on R&D. The maps here were made using data from the State Indicators chapter of the 2008 edition of the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Science and Technology Indicators. For simplicity, the cartograms use a base map of the 48 contiguous mainland states and the District of Columbia.
I haven’t included a detailed description of the indicators – -see the NSF chapter for that.

The Gastner & Newman 2004 PNAS paper introduced an improved algorithm for generating cartograms, which was the one used here. The software implementation is the open-source ScapeToad, released in May by the Chôros Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, which researches the concept of space in society, from urban planning to territorial development.

Note that per-capita and other cartograms that use normalized data can be confusing, cautions Michael Goodchild, a geographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara – in theory a state with just a few researchers and a tiny research budget, for example, might nonetheless appear huge on such a map. Where possible it might be better to use raw non-normalized data, such as total population to scale state sizes in cartograms, and then layer on data on other related information on top. There are examples of both types of data in the slideshow above.

PS Nature also has a short editorial on visualization this week, and just last week a fab special on “Big Data.”

August 20, 2008

Anthrax case not closed, says Nature

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:36 pm

Nature has a strong editorial out tonight (pdf here) on the FBI’s accusation that Bruce Ivins was behind the 2001 Anthrax attacks in the US. It asks “Was Bruce Ivins a scientist-gone-wrong who single-handedly orchestrated the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States? Or was the 62-year-old anthrax-vaccine researcher at Fort Detrick, Maryland, an emotionally unstable innocent whose profile made him a convenient fall guy for the FBI?” and calls for a full enquiry.

Some excerpts below:

April 16, 2008

Agent Orange studies stalled

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:07 pm

I’ve the lead news article tonight in Nature with an exclusive — Further delays to full Agent Orange study — on a complex story behind efforts to get done a large-scale epidemiological study of the health effects, and other combat factors — on Vietnam veterans, almost 30 years after it was first mandated. Nature has an accompanying Editorial — A ghost of battles past.

NOTE: All Nature news stories are free online for at least a week to registered users — and registration is FREE.

A few excerpts from the long news article, and the Editorial, below:

A study to investigate the health effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam War veterans is being obstructed by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), claim scientists and veterans’ organizations.


April 2, 2008

Fighting climate change by architectural design

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:55 pm

Ultra-low energy homes are not necessarily architectural boutique projects: above are low-income “passive” terrace houses in Lindas, Sweden

I’ve a 4-page feature in Nature tonight on the huge potential of green architecture for mitigating climate change (pdf file here).

It’s been one of the most challenging articles I’ve had to write, as I had to leave out so much, but at the same time one of the most satisfying. This is a hugely important topic. Buildings account for up to half of all energy consumption, and are the biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Much attention is given to exotic future remedies, such as carbon sequestration and clean coal. But a way to slash emissions using existing technologies is sitting under our noses: simply rethinking how we design the buildings we live and work in, to use much less energy.

The arguments for building with energy needs met largely by marrying with the local environment and passive strategies are so compelling that the research for this article is persuading me to switch my own plans to buy a place in French Touraine, where I live, to instead build a zero-energy home — no small challenge though, given that French builders are far behind their German, Swiss, and Austrian neighbours here.

I’ve posted just a few of the links I collected during the research to here on Connotea, and hope to add more.

It’s impossible to excerpt from an article of this length in any sensible way, but just to give you a flavour, here below are a few:


January 23, 2008

Nuclear proliferation — a wake-up call

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 8:21 pm

After the success of the international mobilization in the Libya hostage crisis, I’ve been informing myself, through discussions with many people, as to what are the most pressing issues, where change could be made, and influence and impact exercised, by similarly raising awareness among both the public and those well-placed to create change. With US elections this year, and the review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) coming up in 2010 — which in intergovernmental terms is tomorrow — I’ve no doubt as to what is one of the most pressing issues of our time. It is nuclear proliferation, and it is a way more complex issue than just Iran or rogue states. And we have a window of opportunity to make progress on it now. The first step is becoming informed; it’s not an easy topic to grasp in all its complexity, but it is well worth it.

I’ve been happy that in this month of January 2008 alone, Nature has dedicated 2 editorials to the topic, and 3 news analyses — it is going to be a topic that you will hear much more about on this blog throughout this year.

Here are the links to the Nature articles from this month:
1. Resurgent nuclear threats
2. Nuclear war: the threat that never went away
3. Nuclear war: the safety paradox
4. Fuel’s paradise
5. Nuclear fuel: keeping it civil

Excerpt of one editorial: (more…)

Q&A with Larry Brilliant, executive director of

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:34 pm

I had a chat last week with Larry Brilliant, executive director of, Google’s philanthropic arm, which plans to tackle emerging diseases, climate change and poverty. I’ve tried to distill this into what’s known in journalism jargon as a Q&A format in this article in Nature tonight.

Brilliant has had a fascinating career; for a quick summary see the Wikipedia entry on him, including being involved in the eradication of smallpox. His TED talk can be found here, and while we are at TED, here are two must-watch TED talks on bringing health and poverty data to life by Hans Rosling from the Karolinska Institute — who is at at the moment. We gave Hans’s work a nod in a recent Nature editorial

Brilliant faces a major challenge in mapping out a coherent and effective strategy, but with Google’s resources and networks behind it, could be a real force for change; I for one will be watching the development of this young organization, which is still naturally finding its feet, with great interest.

Here are some excerpts from the Q&A with Larry Brilliant:

The grants announced last week were small compared with those made by the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program.

It’s too early for substantial funding but Google has set aside a generous amount for philanthropy — 1% of equity and 1% of profit. We’ve invested a total of US$75 million so far, but I consider these mostly exploratory grants. It is the beginning of a long process and we will be ramping up giving in the future.

How will the organization work to anticipate new pandemics?

With our ‘Predict and Prevent’ initiative we hope to develop an entire new science of epidemiology and surveillance, both for existing diseases and to spot emerging ones early on. One way is to strengthen national health services — look at the polio surveillance system in India, for example, which is the finest for any disease. We are now funding the Global Health and Security Initiative’s work on the Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance network, to boost diagnostic capacities, train people and help create a regional surveillance network for this hotspot, which covers Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It is also using tabletop planning exercises with modern war-gaming techniques to better prepare a pandemic response. The Mekong project is about creating best practices that can then be transposed elsewhere. It’s all about sharing data, visualizing data and creating the IT tools that people would like these countries to have to mount fast and effective responses.

I see Google is also involved in biology.

We want to detect emerging pandemic agents. Humans are increasingly coming into closer contact with animals in many places, creating hotspots where new diseases emerge by jumping the species barrier. So we plan to support work that takes paired blood samples from animals eaten for bushmeat in Africa, and from their hunters. This will create genomic maps of the viruses present, and reveal how these agents change over time. It’s part of an entirely new chain of information gathering, which at some point will need to be centralized by the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health or a non-governmental organization.

How are your relations with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?

I love the Gates Foundation, they are wonderful people, and we will work with them. They have been so kind to me and They invited us round to help us understand philanthropy and how it can best be used. When I heard Bill and Melinda speaking recently on their commitment to malaria, I had tears in my eyes.

And here’s one important question that got cut because of space:

Have you a message for Nature’s scientist and other readers?
Look at’s goals, and if convergent, they should articulate a way that they think they can help, and write to the relevant groups leader. We are looking for partners everywhere.

A very mysterious foundation

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:56 pm

That’s the title of an article I’ve in Nature tonight on the World Innovation Foundation, a Bern-based charity, which I found operates in fact largely out of a one-man building consultancy in Huddersfield, a town in Northern England.

Some excerpts

Some 3,000 scientists, including more than 100 Nobel laureates, have apparently accepted membership of a body called the World Innovation Foundation (WIF), which claims to be a powerful world-changing network to provide “the technological tools and miracle technologies that we shall all need to solve the world’s impending global problems”.

No fewer than four Nobel laureates hold executive positions in the WIF’s governance, according to its website: Jerome Karle, William Knowles, Robert Huber, and Yuan Lee. Huber, described as vice-president, claims that he has no recollection of joining the organization. “I am not aware what this organization is,” he says.

Yuan Lee, a 1986 Nobel laureate in chemistry, says he has had “very limited” involvement with the foundation that amounted to accepting a 2002 invitation to join, signing a WIF letter opposing the Iraq war, and accepting in 2004 the position of the WIF ‘national representative’ in Taiwan. Since accepting this position he has had no dealings with the WIF, he says.

Nature polled several WIF fellows who advertise their fellowships on their websites. What emerges is a pattern whereby scientists join on the strength of the list of existing members, but know little about the foundation or its activities.

August 1, 2007

Nature calls for exoneration of medics in Libyan case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:14 pm

Almost one year ago, Nature ran a blistering Editorial — “Libya’s Travesty” — on the tragic case of the HIV medics in Libya. Much water, and many articles in Nature have passed under the bridge since then, and tonight we publish perhaps our last Editorial on the case — “Free at last” — calling for Libya to go beyond the welcome political solution found to have them released, and at last face up to the facts. Exonerate the medics, is the message.

The Editorial in September 2006 was written at a time when the medics faced a serious threat of execution, and began:

Imagine that five American nurses and a British doctor have been detained and tortured in a Libyan prison since 1999, and that a Libyan prosecutor called at the end of August for their execution by firing squad on trumped-up charges of deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998. Meanwhile, the international community and its leaders sit by, spectators of a farce of a trial.

Implausible? That scenario, with the medics enduring prison conditions reminiscent of the film Midnight Express, is currently playing out in a Tripoli court, except that the nationalities of the medics are different. The nurses are from Bulgaria and the doctor is Palestinian

Excerpts from tonight’s editorial are below, written in a different context now that their liberation has been achieved. But fundamental human rights issues have not yet been resolved, however, and so we demand that Libya now also finally face up to the scientific realities of this case.

In France this week, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam Gaddafi — who played a significant role in resolving the case — declared that the six were “scapegoats” in a “made-up conspiracy” by Libyans, and that the outbreak was as we have long said, an accident.

His statements are courageous, and are to be welcomed; can Libya’s government now show the same balls, and give the six the least they deserve, after all they have suffered as innocent victims of a bigger geopolitical game – having their names cleared? It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, under the circumstances. Is Libya big enough?

An important para in the Editorial below is this:

“The scientists quickly learned that effectiveness in such matters demanded tight liaison with defence lawyers and human-rights groups. One-off appeals and letters of protest can have some impact in raising public awareness, but effective advocacy requires sustained action, clear objectives and a strategy to achieve them.”

It gives a hint of the behind-the-scenes networking needed to work on this complex case, and I’d like to mention in particular among human rights groups, Physicians for Human Rights, who have really worked hard on the case.



The six medical workers held for eight years in a Libyan prison on false charges of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with HIV were finally freed last week. But Libya’s cynical insistence on their guilt is casting a pall over this long-awaited event.

Late in the negotiations that saw the medics’ sentences commuted from the death penalty to life imprisonment followed by their extradition to Bulgaria, Libya refused a request for the final settlement to state that it did not represent an admission of guilt. When Bulgaria freed the six, Baghdadi Mahmudi, Libya’s prime minister, denounced the pardon as a “betrayal”, arguing that the medics should have served life sentences. It is time for Libya to end this charade.

An important supporting role was played by scientists who took up the medics’ cause, including Nobel laureate Rich Roberts of New England Biolabs; Vittorio Colizzi, an AIDS researcher at Tor Vergata University in Rome; and Luc Montagnier, whose group in Paris discovered HIV. They all persistently dissected the emptiness of the prosecution case, showed multiple avenues of evidence pointing to a hospital infection as the true cause of the outbreak and campaigned tirelessly.

The scientists quickly learned that effectiveness in such matters demanded tight liaison with defence lawyers and human-rights groups. One-off appeals and letters of protest can have some impact in raising public awareness, but effective advocacy requires sustained action, clear objectives and a strategy to achieve them.

Libya has, unfortunately, won plaudits in parts of the Arab world for the way it has played its hand, winning normalization of its political and economic ties with the European Union (EU) and much else besides for releasing the six. The EU and the United States should make further normalization contingent on the Libyan government owning up to the real facts of the case, and exonerating the six.

July 26, 2007

Liberty, Justice, HIV and Libya

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:37 pm

Richard Charkin, the chief executive officer of Macmillan Publishers, the parent company of Nature kindly invited me to write a guest post today for his blog, Charkin Blog. The guest post is here, but I thought I’d also post a copy here.

Liberty, Justice, HIV and Libya

The liberation of six foreign health workers, held hostage in Libya, is a welcome denouement of this tragic affair. Today, the 5 Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medic woke up in Bulgaria, free at last from the threat that one morning, they might have woken up only to be instead led out, blindfolded, tied to a stake, and executed by firing squad. But the moral price of securing release of the hostages has been high.

The EU humanitarian aid package for over 400 infected Libyan children accidentally infected at a Benghazi hospital is desirable and commendable. But Libya’s tying it to the six’s release, in effect a ransom, sets a dangerous precedent for future unjustly condemned prisoners.

How much more ransom was really paid in the murky deal between the European Union and Libya will probably never be known. The $400 million in ‘blood money’ paid to the families of the infected children from an opaque international fund – which paved the way for the end of the crisis — may in fact have largely been paid by Libya, as part of a complex face saving deal. But Libya extorted concessions on debt relief, and many other fronts. The EU has also promised returns by normalizing its political and economic ties with Libya.

Moreover, Libya set the tempo for the prearranged choreographed diplomatic script. The sequence of the sorry spectacle went like this.

The Supreme Court upholds the death sentence to play to domestic opinion by being seen to stand up to the West, and to avoid calling into question the farce of a trial conducted by its judicial system.

The families then get bought off to gracefully pardon the medics. The Supreme Council then stalls for days, keeping the West waiting at its feet, before finally commuting the death sentences to life imprisonment, and opening the way for extradition of the six to Bulgaria.

Instead of extraditing the medics immediately, Libya continued its bad faith, knowing that with the West so close to resolution of the crisis, it could still try to raise its price. Right until the final hour of their release, Libya haggled as if the medics were carpets in a Tripoli souk, and used delaying tactics, to win further concessions.

In short, the West has been forced to appease Libya, and ultimately reward it for taking six health workers hostage for eight years. This all is difficult to swallow. The six were not given a fair trial, prosecution evidence was fabricated, and scientific evidence that would have exonerated the medics ignored. Their trials were a kafkaesque mockery that trampled on justice.

But that outcome was perhaps inevitable. From the outset, the six were pawns, caught up in global geopolitics. Once sucked into that quagmire, respect for fundamental human rights such as the right to a fair trial, became just one element in a wider basket, that included Libya’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, it’s utility as an ally in the war against terror, not to mention that Libya’s coming in from the cold opened up to for Western economic interests the goldmine of the world’s largest unexplored oil reserves.

Once the case had become politicized, it was inevitable too that the solution would have to be political. The campaigns by Nature, human rights groups, scientific organizations and lawyers, acknowledged this reality from the outset, and understood well that the only real pressure point available was to raise international public opinion and awareness to force Western governments to do more to resolve the case.

As well as defending the fundamental principles of a fair trial, and the right for relevant evidence to be heard, the focus on calling for the scientific evidence to be heard was considered by the defence as its best card in the run up to the end of the trial last autumn.

Had Libya accepted to have had the scientific evidence heard in court, the prosecution case would have collapsed like a pack of cards. But if as was most likely, it refused to do so, it would also expose with clarity that the trial was anything but fair, and provide a fulcrum, a focus, to leverage public opinion, and consequently political opinion.

The massive international outrage after the 19 December death penalty verdict was in large part prompted by the fact that science had demonstrated the emptiness of the prosecution case, leaving the world in no doubt that this was an appalling miscarriage of justice. The scale of the outrage led to more intense diplomatic activity, in particular by the EU.

The human rights case was also not entirely lost. After the verdict, the EU broke temporarily with its policy of ‘silent diplomacy’ — refraining from public criticism of Libya’s handling of the case and relying on behind-the-scenes discussions – and condemned in no uncertain terms the human rights violations, and abuse of scientific evidence in the case. This, combined with the fact that Bulgaria became a member of the European Union at the start of the year, led to pressure for a speedy resolution of the case.

The United States meanwhile has been absent from the case, and mute on the human rights abuses in the case. Its absence though was perhaps not a bad thing after all, given the current administration’s own abyssmal record on human rights, which deprive it of moral authority.

Unbelievable perhaps though, that the administration couldn’t find anything better to do on 11 July, the day the Libyan Supreme Court upheld the death verdict, than to announce it would appoint an ambassador to Tripoli for the first time in more than 25 years.

Realpolitik all along meant that the six could probably never have hoped that the international community would force Libya to give the six a fair trial. That the medics are free at last is already a major victory, and hat’s off to the EU and British diplomats who worked patiently to put together a solution to the case — they are right to be livid with France and the Sarkozy family’s shameless attempt to steal the limelight and take all the credit for the release.

The 1998 outbreak was a triple tragedy — for the six unjustly imprisoned, and for the infected children and families. Exoneration of the medics must be the next step. And as Vittorio Colizzi, an AIDS researcher at Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, who campaigned for scientific evidence exonerating the medical workers to be considered by the Libyan courts, says: “We must not forget the children.” The third victim, which has not often been mentioned, is the struggle to have nation states abide by the fundamental international principles of justice and human rights enshrined in treaties to which they are, on paper, parties to.

Declan Butler

July 24, 2007


Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:16 pm

By now you will all have heard the good news that the six foreign health workers have finally been freed. I’ve written an update in Nature tonight — Libyan ordeal ends: medics freed.

I’d like to thank the many hands, from the EU and British diplomats who worked patiently behind-the-scenes, to the many bloggers, scientists, journalists, lawyers, and human rights groups, who have all contributed to resolution of this politically-complex case.

It has been a long and tumultuous campaign, and over the past months, I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity of working closely with many incredibly committed people all pulling in the same direction to achieve one goal — today’s liberation — with many of their efforts often far from the public glare of the cameras.

Today is a great day, so let’s celebrate it. The full legal and diplomatic history of this case will take time to dissect, as will its implications. On the longer-term implications, Physicians for Human Rights, an organization that has been highly-active behind the scenes has issued a very pertinent statement tonight — “Exonerate Pardoned Bulgarian Nurses and Palestinian Medic“.

And as Vittorio Colizzi, an AIDS researcher at Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, who campaigned for scientific evidence exonerating the medical workers to be considered by the Libyan courts, says: “We must not forget the children.” The 1998 outbreak was a double tragedy — for the six unjustly imprisoned, and for the infected children and families.

And as a historical note, here’s a list of everything Nature published on this case recently

Libyan ordeal ends: medics freed

Declan Butler (24 July 2007) doi:10.1038/448398a

High noon in Libya

Declan Butler (17 July 2007) doi:10.1038/448230a

Libyan court upholds death sentences

Declan Butler (11 July 2007) doi:10.1038/news070709-6

Supreme Court hearing starts for medics facing death penalty
Declan Butler (20 June 2006) doi:10.1038/news070618-12

Diplomatic talks spur hope in Libya HIV case

Nature 447, 624—625 (7 June 2007) doi:10.1038/447624b

Libya and human values
Nature 445, 2 (4 January 2007) doi:10.1038/445002a

Europe condemns Libyan trial verdict
Declan Butler
Nature 445, 7 (4 January 2007) doi:10.1038/445007a

Medics sentenced to death in Libya
Declan Butler (18 December 2006) doi:10.1038/news061218-3

Molecular epidemiology: HIV-1 and HCV sequences from Libyan outbreak
Tulio de Oliveira et al.
Nature AOP (6 December 2006) doi:10.1038/444836a

Molecular HIV evidence backs medics
Declan Butler
Nature 444, 658-659 (7 December 2006) doi:10.1038/444658b

Libya death penalty trial ends; verdict 19 December
Declan Butler
News@nature (6 November 2006) doi:10.1038/news061106-3

An open letter to Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi
Richard J. Roberts and 113 fellow Nobel Laureates
Nature AOP (2 November 2006) doi:10.1038/444146a

A shocking lack of evidence
Declan Butler
Nature 443, 888-889 (26 October 2006) doi:10.1038/443888a

Protests mount against Libyan trial
Declan Butler
Nature 443, 612-613 (12 October 2006) doi:10.1038/news060925-2

Forgotten plights
Nature 443, 605-606 (12 October 2006) doi:10.1038/443605b

Dirty needles, dirty dealings
Charlotte Schubert
Nature 443, (2 October 2006) doi:10.1038/news061002-3

Bloggers rally for liberation of the ‘Tripoli Six’
Declan Butler
news@nature (25 September 2006) doi:10.1038/443612a

Libya’s travesty
Nature 443, 245 (21 September 2006) doi:10.1038/443245b

Lawyers call for science to clear AIDS nurses in Libya
Nature 443, 254 (21 September 2006) doi:10.1038/443254b

Excerpts from my brief article tonight:

A French government aircraft carrying six medical workers convicted of deliberately infecting children with HIV touched down in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 24 July, ending their 8-year ordeal in a Libyan prison.

Their release is the final scene in meticulously crafted negotiations between the European Union (EU) and Libya, which sought a way for Libya to climb down on the case without being seen to concede to Western pressure. Diplomatic efforts intensified as a result of international public and political outcry after the six medical workers were sentenced to death in a retrial on 19 December 2006.

“The efforts to mobilize Western governments to act by increasing international public opinion have paid off,” says Emmanuel Altit, a lawyer from the medical workers’ international defence team. The concerted efforts of the scientific community around the case played a “fundamental role” in changing the trajectory of the case and helping to secure today’s outcome, he adds.

Libya has long used the six medical workers as bargaining chips and political pawns in its international relations. Right until the final hour of their release, Libya haggled to win further concessions to improve its political and trade ties with the EU.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, was also on the aircraft with the freed health workers. She, the EU and Britain, were the main players working patiently behind the scenes to secure the release. On the Libyan side, the key force in freeing the workers was Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, through his charity the Gaddafi Development Foundation. He is thought to be personally convinced that the outbreak was accidental.

More controversial is the role played by another passenger on the plane, French first lady Cécilia Sarkozy. France has not had a prominent role in the negotiations, and her last-minute intervention is widely considered to be a thinly veiled bid by her husband to steal the limelight that may, in fact, have weakened the EU’s negotiating position in the talks.

July 17, 2007

High Noon in Libya

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 4:19 pm

Still waiting on a decision from the Supreme Council. Meanwhile, I’ve written a long article in Nature, “High Noon in Libya,” available online tonight, tracing scientists efforts in the case

June 20, 2007

Update on Libya death penalty case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:42 pm

I’ve a brief update on the Libya case on Nature news online tonight – see ‘ Supreme Court hearing starts for medics facing death penalty ‘ . It’s an update to one earlier this month in Nature — Diplomatic talks spur hope in Libya HIV case.

We are now in the crucial final phase of the Tripoli six case. This morning, Libya’s Supreme Court heard the appeal of the six. There will be no further hearings, and it will rule on 11 July. Meanwhile, the families of the Libyan children are discussing a possible settlement with the European Union, and an announcement on that is expected Friday.

As in the past in this case, details and plans keep shifting — eg until very recently, a verdict had been expected today – but the overall thrust now looks cautiously optimistic for a rapid resolution of the case.

The campaigns by scientists and others to draw attention to the science of this case during the course of the trial last autumn have borne fruit, contributing to the depth of international protests after the 19 December death penalty verdict. This — combined with the fact that Bulgaria became a member of the European Union at the start of the year — – see ‘ Europe condemns Libyan trial verdict‘ – has resulted in increased diplomatic activity, in particular by the EU, to find a solution. Libya too increasingly seems sincerely to want to turn the page on this tragic affair.

Talks have intensified over the past month
, with visits to Libya by Tony Blair, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU Commissioner for External Relations, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister.

The contours of the solution remain hinged on international humanitarian aid to provide high-quality life-long treatment of the infected children, and support for their families. That’s important, and addresses one of the concerns of the families: that once the spotlight turns away from the case, following any release of the healthcare workers, the children’s care might be forgotten about. With lifelong care, including existing modern anti-retrovirals, as well as anticipated therapeutic advances, the children might expect to lead reasonably normal lives.

The EU’s Ferrero-Waldner, who has condemned the conduct of the medics’s trial, has shown sensitivity to the children’s plight. “We have come here to acknowledge the suffering of the children,” she said 10 June during her Libya visit, “and have understanding and sympathy for the families, who must have been shocked by the horrible events of the AIDS case.”

In terms of negotiating an outcome, she said “I think we have advanced a lot.” Clearly if the families and the EU do reach agreement on a humanitarian package, this will greatly improve the climate for the 11 July ruling – Islamic law can interpret this as blood money, which could allow the charges to be dropped. But irrespective of what the verdict is on 11 July, the death sentences could still be annuled, or commuted, by the Supreme Council for Judicial Authority, a political body spanning Libya’s executive and judiciary authorities.

Amidst the flurry of diplomatic negotiations a key player is Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader.
He heads the Kadhafi Foundation for Development, a non-governmental charity, and helped mediate the compensation deals for both the bombings of a US airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, and of a French airliner over Niger the following year. Those who have met the young Gaddafi have been impressed by what they describe as his thorough grasp of the circumstances of the HIV outbreak, and his sincere commitment to finding a solution.

Many scientists, human rights bodies, lawyers, and others have articulated clearly and publicly throughout this case the principles of the need for justice, a fair and impartial trial, and the proper hearing of scientific evidence.
I think that message has been received, and helped move matters along at an important point in the case. Although exoneration of the medics must be the ultimate goal, the immediate emphasis of European Union diplomats seems more on securing that the six might soon touch down on a tarmac in Sofia. That would already be a large step forward for the six still facing the death penalty in Libya.
Fingers crossed…

April 26, 2007

Families of Bulgarian nurses meet France’s presidential candidates

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 7:28 pm

The families of the Bulgarian nurses met today in Paris separately with Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy. Both candidates pledged to make resolution of the case a priority if elected, and to have it on the agenda at the next EU summit on 22 June. This high-level political support is a very important, and welcome, development in the case.

It’s a pity therefore that there is a slightly bitter aftertaste of political recuperation. TF1, one of the main national TV channels here, again demonstrated its political impartiality by running images of the meeting with Sarkozy as headline evening news, but failing to even mention that the nurses’ families met with Royal. Both meetings were arranged by a coalition of European NGOs and individuals, of which I’m part of.

Moreover the families also met, not only with Royal, but Jack Lang, Royal’s adviser — who a few weeks ago visited the nurses in their prison in Libya — and Robert Badinter, who as Socialist interior minister under Mitterrand, abolished the death penalty in France, and has long been a solid supporter of the nurse’s case, and also contributed his political sagesse and experience to the cause. Political credit should be given in such human rights issues — even by electoral and parochial TF1 — where it is due.

April 25, 2007

Virtual Globes and environmental science

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Semantic web,Standards,Uncategorized — admin @ 10:51 am

The UK National Institute for Environmental eScience (NIEeS) recently organized a scientific workshop at Cambridge University on environmental research applications of Google Earth and other virtual globes; some of the presentations are now available online here.

April 18, 2007

Bush commends Darfur Google Earth layers; I recount the history of the project

Filed under: Blogging,GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:11 pm

For what it’s worth, Georges Bush tonight commended the Darfur layers in Google Earth built by a group of volunteers (including yours truly), and endorsed by Google and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. On tonight, I tell the story of how this project evolved.

To read more of that history, see below:

Nature on France’s presidential elections

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:06 pm

In the week of the first round of France’s presidential elections, Nature takes a unique 9-page look at what the incoming president will mean for French research. Segolene Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Bayrou, the only contenders in the race who might ultimately win the presidency, go into unprecedented detail on their plans for French science and technology in response to Nature’s questions.


April 10, 2007

Genocide information in Google Earth

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth,Justice,Open data,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:12 pm

I’m pleased to let you know about Crisis in Darfur, a Google Earth layer that assembles data, photographs, and eyewitness testimony and which will be officially announced today by Google and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It will appear in Google Earth under the Global Awareness layer in the left hand panel of Google Earth .

April 6, 2007

Send Senators Joseph Biden and Patrick Leahy an appeal on the Libya death penalty case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 6:02 pm

Physicians for Human Rights has launched a web page to send a message to the US administration on the need to resolve speedily the case of the medics facing the death penalty in Libya. You can access the sign on page here. Bloggers, please sign up, and forward this link to other bloggers/media. See PHR’s recent letter to Colonel Gaddafi here.

Bianca Jagger to support medics in Libya

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:55 pm

Bianca Jagger will arrive in Bulgaria tomorrow to lend support to the “You are not alone” campaign.

George Michael will also hold a concert in May in Bulgaria to back the cause. The two join a list of celebrities moved by the double tragedy; the children infected with HIV, and these health professionals unfairly imprisoned and sentenced to death.

Let’s hope their support can help mobilize public opinion to galvanize ongoing political and diplomatic efforts to alleviate both tragedies.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to visit Libya next week

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:36 pm

I’ve already posted on the public ambivalence of the US State Dept on the Libya death penalty trial — see post here.

John Negroponte, the number 2 in the State Dept will visit Libya next week, the highest-ranking US official to visit Libya since the US and Libya resumed full diplomatic relations last May. The talks will focus on Darfur. The US must ensure that the case of the six condemned medics is also high on the agenda.

See Reuters report here

“Justice in Libya? Let Scientific Evidence Prevail”

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:24 pm

That’s the title of a recent editorial in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, one of the top journals in this field. You can access the full article here.
Concluding paragraph:

How will this sad and deplorable episode end? Six foreign health care workers have now been jailed in Libya for ∼8 years, reportedly tortured, and now once again (on 19 December 2006) sentenced to death. Appeals are being considered, and ransom negotiations continue. Assuming the presumption of innocence as a basis for a fair trial, it must be stated that, by any objective standard, there is no scientific evidence to convict anyone of deliberately infecting unfortunate Libyan children. Moreover, epidemiologic and molecular evidence demonstrates that the HIV strain that caused the nosocomial outbreak was circulating in the hospital before the arrival of the foreign health care workers, and poor hygiene standards, such as the reuse of needles, were reportedly widespread. We can only hope that world pressure will continue until this miscarriage of justice is reversed. As noted by Ahuja et al., what has happened in Libya has sent “a chilling message to all health care workers who choose to work in difficult circumstances to deliver life-saving care to HIV-1–infected or at-risk people worldwide” [9, p. 924]. At a time when enormous progress is being made in the rollout of antiretroviral drugs to the developing world, we can ill afford such chilling messages. Let us all continue to exert whatever individual and collective pressure we can to bring this injustice to an end.

April 4, 2007

10 major US medical groups call for release of hostages in Libya

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:33 pm

In the run up to the Supreme Court hearing of the appeal of 5 Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor in the death penalty trial in Libya — expected as soon as end month — there will be growing international activity. On 23 March, 10 major medical associations wrote to Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi arguing the case for the release of what some describe as political and judicial hostages. A coalition of European organizations will be launched this month also.

Exclusive: Joan of Arc’s relics exposed as forgery made from Egyptian mummy

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 4:34 pm

I’ve a quirky but fascinating exclusive in a news article in tonight’s Nature. Here’s the link.


The relics of St Joan of Arc are not the remains of the fifteenth-century French heroine after all, according to European experts who have analysed the sacred scraps. Instead, they say the relics are a forgery, made from the remains of an Egyptian mummy.

Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist obtained permission to study the relics — cloth, a human rib and a cat femur — from the French church last year. He says he was “astonished” by the results. “I’d never have thought that it could be from a mummy.”

The researchers used a range of techniques to investigate the remains, including mass, infrared and atomic-emission spectrometry, electron microscopy, pollen analysis and, unusually, the help of the leading ‘noses’ of the perfume industry: Sylvaine Delacourte from Guerlain, and Jean-Michel Duriez from Jean Patou.

A series of clues led to conclusion that the relics were of the mummy origin, reinforced by carbon-14 analysis dating the remains to between the third and sixth centuries BC. And the spectrometry profiles of the relics matched those from Egyptian mummies from the period, and not those of burnt bones. Charlier points out that mummies were used in Europe during the Middle Ages in pharmaceutical remedies.

Millennium development holes

Nature recently published an Editorial “Millennium development holes” on problems with the underlying data used to assess progress to the goals.


Every year, the UN rolls out reports with slick graphics, seemingly noting with precise scientific precision progress towards the goals. But the reports mask the fact that the quality of most of the underlying data sets is far from adequate. Moreover, the indicators often combine very different types of data, making aggregation and analysis of the deficient data even more complicated.

There are decent data for just a handful of indicators, such as child mortality, but for most of the 163 developing countries, many indicators do not even have two data points for the period 1990–2006. And few developing countries have any data for around 1990, the baseline year. It is impossible to estimate progress for most of the indicators over less than five years, and sparse poverty data can only be reliably compared over decades.

Meanwhile, here are links to a few of my recent articles:

Nature launches avian flu site

Filed under: avian influenza,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:33 pm

Nature helped launch interest in addressing the risks of a flu pandemic back in 2005. One of may favourites still is the fictional blog I wrote; The flu pandemic: were we ready?

Since then awareness of the threat has grown and there is extensive blog and media coverage on developments, as well as governmental and other sites providing information.
As an archive of reliable scientific information, Nature has now brought all its avian flu content together on one site, with almost all on free access. Here’s the link.

December 26, 2006

Christmas day and Libya death penalty case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 12:40 am

I haven’t posted since the death penalty verdict last Tuesday, because I’m still analysing carefully all the different responses and positions. But it is Christmas Day, so I thought I’d post symbolically, just to point out it was on this very day last year that the six were cleared by the Supreme Court of Libya of the charges against them.

One year later, Valya Chervenyashka; Snezhana Dimitrova; Nasya Nenova; Valentina Siropulo; and Kristiana Valcheva, the five Bulgarian nurses, along with Ashraf Ahmad Jum’a, a Palestinian intern trainee doctor, have again been given the death sentence following the 19 December court ruling in the retrial at the Benghazi criminal court.

That is despite the fact that this was not a fair and impartial trial, and that the court refused to hear the considerable body of international scientific evidence that could exonerate the medics, and show that this is a typical hospital-borne spread.

The Libyan children are being treated in European hospitals — thanks in part to a humanitarian fund established by the international community –and this Christmas, our thoughts are also with them and their families. But denial of the problems all health systems face will not help these children, or those children who risk being infected in future through hospital infections in many countries, such as the almost 100 children infected with HIV in a Kazakhstan hospital this summer — see older BBC story here.

Bulgarian media have launched a “You are Not Alone” ribbon campaign for the six — see logo at top of this post. I endorse it, as defending the most basic of human rights; the right to a fair trial. This case is not only about fundamental human rights principles, but also about the role of scientific evidence, and how we face up to, and not deny, the potential health threats to us and our children, posed by deficiencies in all our health systems.

This case should be an issue of health and science, not a power play between governments as it is turning out to be. Let’s get back to the fundamental principles of health, science, and law in this case. And think of the two groups of innocent victims in this case; the six, falsely accused, and the infected children.

December 19, 2006

Libya condemns Tripoli Six to death

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 4:16 pm

By now, I am sure you all will have heard the grim news from Libya. I’ve written a short factual account here: Medics sentenced to death in Libya.

I’ll blog more later, after taking stock. The six health professionals have 60 days to appeal to the Supreme Court — their ultimate chance to obtain justice.

December 18, 2006

Background information resources for Libya HIV case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:45 pm

The verdict in the Libya HIV death penalty trial is expected to be announced tomorrow. Here are a few information resources that may be useful if you are blogging or writing about the trial.

The Council of Europe has a good and succint factual account of the case and the human rights violations.
This blog also has a resource page for the trial providing other background, and links to key media Editorials. This WSJ account by Judy Miller, who visited the prisoners recently, is also well worth a read.
ScienceBlogs has considerable coverage.
Nature has a special focus with free access to articles about the trial.
A selection of recent media and blog articles are bookmarked here.
European efforts to help the affected children are described here.

November 15, 2006

Article on WHO’s new DG — Margaret Chan

Filed under: avian influenza,Uncategorized — admin @ 10:26 pm

With the death penalty trial in Libya and the Nature supplement on Islam & Science, I’ve had to put avian flu and the World Health Organization (WHO) on the backburner over the past few weeks.

In this week’s Nature, though I take at look at Margaret Chan’s election as director general of WHO, and what this might mean for global health.

November 2, 2006

114 Nobel laureates call for fair trial for Tripoli Six

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 7:50 pm

More than one hundred Nobel laureates have written to Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi to express their concern over the death-penalty case of 5 Bulgarian nurses, and a Palestinian doctor, accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV in 1998.

In the letter, to be published online this week by Nature, 114 laureates affirm the need to ensure a fair trial, and for the appropriate authorities to permit evidence from internationally recognized AIDS experts to be used in this case. It notes that: “Strong scientific evidence is needed to establish the cause of this infection. However, independent science-based evidence from international experts has so far not been permitted in court.”

The next, and probably last, session of the trial is scheduled on 4 November, with a verdict expected shortly thereafter. If the six are convicted, the case would go to appeal in the Supreme Court.

For background, and recent news on the case, see Nature’s Focus on the trial, and my “Resources page” for the trial.

Special issue on Islam and Science

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:03 pm


Nature today published a huge special on Islam and Science. I’ve listed it’s contents below, with direct links to the pdfs. It is also available on free access here.

The special, which will also be translated into Arabic, covers a series of issues dealing with science in the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Producing the special, the brainchild of Philip Campbell, Nature’s Editor-in-chief, has involved substantial work and preparation by the Nature team. Many of the themes emerged in a meeting earlier this year — held under Chatham House rules — organized by Nature at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre in Italy, where Nature editors, and eminent scientists, intellectuals and politicians, from several Muslim countries, spent 4 days in fascinating discussions of the many issues.

I’ve been involved in the preparation of the special, and also have written two of its articles, one an analysis of science and other statistical indicators for OIC countries, and the other a Q&A with Mostafa Moin, a medical researcher, former minister of Iran for higher education and for science, and the reformist candidate in Iran’s presidential election last year.

October 14, 2006

Pressure grows for fair trial for Tripoli Six

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 7:49 pm

This post is a word of thanks to all bloggers for their posts — now more than 200 — helping to keep up attention in this crucial phase of the Tripoli Six trial before the court’s last sitting on 31 October. Here are just two good examples among the many: today The Daily Kos, the world’s largest political blog, and Effect Measure, a progressive science blog, both published updates — see here and here.

This is in addition to renewed efforts this week, by the New York Times, who should be congratulated for being the first mainstream media to grasp the new current urgency in this long-running trial, and the many human rights and science bodies who have likewise weighed in over the past week with their renewed support — see here, here, here, and here.

This effort is all the more admirable as one of the biggest difficulties of maintaining sustained attention on this issue is that events occur only very sporadically, with long intervals in between, making hard news angles few and far between.

There are now less than three weeks before the end of the current trial in Libya, three weeks where sustained pressure can influence the outcome of the verdict — and remember that the verdict will be the only news on the case that most of the mainstream news agencies will likely report on in the coming weeks.

New York Times editorial on Libya case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:33 am

The New York Times today published a strong editorial — “A Medical-Legal Travesty in Libya” —
As one can seen from my last few posts, momentum — for international pressure for a fair trial and for the scientific evidence to be heard in the case — is now building in the crucial run up to the next and last court session in Tripoli on 31 October.

Excerpts below:

October 13, 2006

UK science bodies call for fair trial in Tripoli Six case to avoid “judicial murder.”

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 10:24 am

The UK Times has today published a letter — link here — from Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, Sir Keith Peters, president of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, and Thomas Lehner, from Kings College, London. The letter, “Foreign workers at risk in Libya,” concludes with this sentence:

“We ask the medical and scientific authorities of the United Nations, Arab countries, United States and European Union (Bulgaria will join the EU in three months) to exert their utmost influence on President Gaddafi to prevent what might amount to judicial murder.”

October 7, 2006

Physicians for Human Rights adds its voice to Libya medics’ case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 8:40 pm

Physicians for Human Rights has tonight weighed in again on the Tripoli Six case, with this alert. I’ve appended its text, which is a good explanation, below.


October 5, 2006

Amnesty International issues alert on Tripoli Six

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 10:24 pm

See statement here.
The full text is appended below:

September 25, 2006

Filmmaker makes full documentary on Libya HIV case available free online

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya,Uncategorized — admin @ 7:25 pm

Mickey Grant, a filmmaker from Dallas, Texas, has, in response to the blog campaign, today made his full, 1h 22 min, 2003 documentary on the Libya HIV case, Infection, available free, on Google Video — link here — it’s a raw upload, so for the moment you have to endure a 30 second test pattern before the film actually starts. I mentioned this in my earlier post, but I think his initiative deserves a post of its own.

June 29, 2006

The time for sitting on flu data is over.

Filed under: avian influenza,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:12 pm

Nature has a short but strong editorial today on the problem issue of access to flu data, which I’ve already blogged about here and here. It follows up on our much longer March editorial on the issue — Dreams of Flu Data.

Here are a few excepts, from today’s:

June 20, 2006

PLoS financials

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:14 pm

For a change, something other than avian flu. I’ve an article in Nature this week on the finances of the Public Library of Science (PLoS]. I’ve been a longtime advocate of the principles of open access, and open data, but at the same time also keen on experiments to verify its feasibility across various sorts of publications; ie not simplistic “one solution fits all” models — see previous debate here. — This weeks article, published online here, which takes a hard look at PLos’s finances, will I hope contribute to the debate. Comments welcome.
Here’s some excerpts:


March 22, 2006

The future of computing; science in 2020

Barely a month after Google Earth made the front cover of Nature, computing is back on the cover again. Tomorrow’s issue contains a big special on the future of scientific computing. All the articles are free, thanks to sponsorship from Microsoft; the special was produced in conjunction with the 2020 report published today by an international group of experts convened by Microsoft. The special is, however, of course completely editorially-independent of Microsoft

The special, by journalists and top computing experts, looks at some of the key emerging technologies and concepts that look set to have a major impact on scientific computing by 2020. I’ve a three pager on “sensor webs” – “2020 computing: Everything, everywhere” — in it; there is also a short pop-up box — “Batteries not included” — on the problems of powering these small remote devices.

March 1, 2006

Reinventing the world’s disease surveillance system

Filed under: avian influenza,Uncategorized — admin @ 11:50 pm

Quick post; I’ve a 2-page article in Nature tonight on the need to reinvent the world’s disease surveillance systems, in particular with respect to avian flu. The problem is so large, that it could have been 15 pages, or a book.

I have my thoughts on what are the roles and responsibilities of international agencies such as WHO, FAO, and OIE, and their own agendas, and their diplomatic and other constraints, and also what are the glaring elements lacking in the current international system, but I’ll save that for a later date in Nature… And yes we can also talk about cats and H5N1; see my article from two weeks ago on this risk.

Here are a few excerpts from tonight’s article:

January 11, 2006

BBC Radio 5 has a piece on the Google Earth flu maps

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth,Uncategorized — admin @ 12:07 am

Here’s the link

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