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

December 5, 2007

The Freeing of the Tripoli Six: The inside story of how scientists saved medical workers from the firing squad.

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 9:06 pm

I haven’t been blogging for a while; been taking some time out for other projects, and the blog had become almost entirely devoted to original posts on the Libya death penalty case, a hard act to follow. An article in the November issue of Discover magazine, now free online, provides an opportunity to close that chapter, and start blogging on more mundane matters. The long article, by John Bohannon, a journalist colleague who writes for several science publications including Science, tells the story of scientists’ actions in the Libya case. It covers many of the events blogged here as they happened — see summary here — but as a gripping detective story — it makes a good read.


Late in September 2006, Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist Richard Roberts was thumbing through the journal Nature when he read an article by one of their senior reporters, Declan Butler, about a group of foreign medics on death row in Libya. Butler’s article, along with an anonymous editorial entitled “Libya’s Travesty,” described how the medics’ appeals were nearly exhausted. “I had been aware of the situation through the media,” says Roberts, the chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts. “But the case seemed so open-and-shut, I’d assumed that diplomacy would sort the situation out.” But as the editorial warned, “Diplomacy has lamentably failed to deliver,” and “scientific leaders need to use all their influence” to persuade their governments to take action.

“It was a call to arms,” says Roberts. So he picked up the phone and contacted Butler, who painted a grim picture of the situation. Ever since the death sentence was handed down in 2004, the absurd case had been bouncing between Libya’s courts as the medics languished in jail; there had been at least one suicide attempt among them. Butler was glad Roberts wanted to help. After watching the Libyan affair from a journalist’s vantage point, says Butler, “I found myself in a position to be useful. What was needed was for someone to work behind the scenes, connecting influential scientists with each other and with diplomats involved with the case.”

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 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.

January 3, 2007

Libya verdict follow-up in Nature

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 9:37 pm

The lead story in the first issue of Nature in 2007 is an update on the Libya death penalty case — link here. It is accompanied by an Editorial — “Libya and human values.” Both should be on free access.

A few excerpts from the Editorial:

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.

US State Department’s public face on Libya HIV case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 12:33 am

Sean McCormack is the US State Department’s official spokesman. But he doesn’t seem to be very well-briefed on the death penalty trial in Libya of 5 Bulgarian nurses, and a Palestinian doctor, accused of injecting over 400 children with HIV, even though the verdict is expected next Tuesday.


December 17, 2006

Libyan scientist defends prosecution case in death penalty trial

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 8:57 pm

This link is to videos of a press conference held in Geneva last Friday, where the speakers defend the prosecution case in the Libya HIV trial.

One speaker is Mohamed Daw, head of the Department of Microbiology at the Faculty of Medicine, al-Fatah University. Daw was one of five independent Libyan experts, who authored of a 2003 report to the court. Here he defends his report; for an independent assessment of this report, see here. He shares the platform with Ramadan Ali El Faiture, speaking on behalf of the infected children and families.

I will leave you to judge for yourself the depth, rigour, and validity, of the scientific evidence presented.

December 8, 2006

Leading international medical bodies plead for charges to be dropped in Libya case after new scientific evidences

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 5:44 pm

Citing the new scientific evidence published in Nature this week, “the World Medical Association and the International Council of Nurses have sent a joint letter to the African Union, Amnesty International, the Libyan Government, the Council of Europe and Physicians for Human Rights drawing their attention to new scientific findings casting doubt on the evidence against the accused health professionals.”

The full text of their statement is given below. The World Medical Association,represents more than eight million physicians worldwide. The International Council of Nurses is a federation of 129 national nurses’ associations representing 13 millions nurses worldwide.

Full text below:


December 6, 2006

New scientific evidence in Libya death penalty case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 6:50 pm

New molecular evidence, published online by Nature tonight — “Molecular epidemiology: HIV-1 and HCV sequences from Libyan outbreak” — and supplementary info — see hereprovides a firm alibi for the six medical workers facing the death penalty in Libya. They are charged with deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998.

An international team has used the genetic sequences of the viruses isolated from the patients to reconstruct the exact history, or “family tree” of the outbreak. Analysing mutations that accumulate over time has allowed the researchers to work out when different events occurred. The Brief Communication shows that the subtype of HIV involved was present and spreading locally well before the medical workers arrived in Libya in 1998.

The trial of the six ended in Tripoli on 4 November, and a verdict is expected on 19 December. A body of scientific evidence already indicates that the outbreak was caused not by deliberate transmission, but by poor hospital hygiene. These results, by Tulio de Oliveira and colleagues, provide the first independent molecular confirmation.

I’ve an accompanying news article — Molecular HIV evidence backs accused medics — that discusses the case case and how important this new evidence could be — the full pdf, with box is here. Phylogenetic HIV analyses have been used in court cases worldwide involving allegations of accidental or deliberate HIV infection. Thomas Leitner of Los Alamos National Laboratory has provided forensic HIV evidence in more than 30 such cases over the past 15 years. He describes the Nature paper as “compelling evidence that the outbreak had started before the accused could have started it.”

The news article cites several other assessments by scientists who have been involved in HIV phylogenetic evidence presented in court cases of the new findings.

Here are two more comments, that came in after we had gone to press:

The scientific data presented by de Oliveria et al. convincingly establish multiple infections in the children prior to the arrival of the Bulgarian staff in March, 1998 at the hospital. These data sufficiently refute any connection with the staff, directly or indirectly. This is a real travesty given the refusal by the Libyan courts to consider key scientific evidence that gets to the truth of the matter.”

Mike Metzker, Baylor College of Medicine, Human Genome Sequencing Center

Using state of the art evolutionary analyses, they demonstrate that the likely dates for the most-recent common ancestors (MRCAs) of the HCV and HIV-1 viral sequences pre-date the presence of the Bulgarian nurses in the Al-Fateh Hospital. Taken as a whole, the results of the analyses of de Oliveira et al. are highly inconsistent with the allegations of the Libyan prosecutors.”

Gerald Learn, evolutionary geneticist at the University of Washington

Related resources
Nature Libya Focus
My resources page for the trial

November 30, 2006

Blog anniversary, and latest news

This blog is 1 year old today. I’d like to say thanks to all of you for visiting, and often getting in touch.

It’s been an eventful year, with content mostly a mix of posts — too-infrequent 🙂 — on GIS, avian flu and public health, computing, and, of late, the venue for disseminating information on the Libya HIV case, and the campaign to free the six medical workers facing the death penalty — see here and here.

I’ve an article in today’s Nature — Amazon puts network power online — on an interesting form of computing-on-demand from Amazon, that might appeal to many scientists — it is in beta. It costs $0.10 per computing hour, and to store data for $0.15 per gigabyte per month. To get started, see the FAQ, and a guide here.


November 4, 2006

Libya HIV trial ends: verdict 19 December

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 1:52 pm

The trial of 5 Bulgarian nurses, and a Palestinian doctor, accused of deliberately injecting 426 children with HIV in 1998, has just ended in Tripoli. The court said that the verdict would be announced on 19 December.

More to come later (Update; I’ve just published a very short article in Nature on the end of the trial). For background, and recent news on the case, see Nature’s Focus on the trial, and my “Resources page.“.

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.

Update on status of Libya HIV trial

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 12:26 pm

Apols for not posting earlier, but past 48hrs have been busy. I’ve posted a very brief update on the adjournment of what should have been the last session in the Libya HIV trial here.


The death-penalty trial of six foreign medical workers in Libya, which was scheduled to end yesterday, 31 October, has been extended until this weekend at the earliest.

The medics are accused of deliberately injecting 426 children with HIV at the Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in 1998. Yesterday’s hearing — the eleventh of the trial that began 11 May — was the first time that the defence had argued its case.

The sitting was scheduled to be the last day of the trial, but the prosecution argued that they needed a further extraordinary court sitting to respond to the defence arguments. This has been granted for 4 November.

October 29, 2006

Libya trial next Tuesday — update

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 9:18 pm

With the Libyan death penalty trial of the Tripoli Six scheduled to end next Tuesday in Libya, I thought I’d post an update on some on the buildup of international pressure over the past few days.

October 25, 2006

Exclusive: Nature article demolishes prosecution’s scientific evidence in Libya HIV death penalty trial

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 6:37 pm

Nature has obtained an Arabic to English translation of the ‘scientific evidence’ which has been key to the prosecution’s case in the trial of six medics in Libya, and asked top international AIDS and health scientists to assess it. They unanimously conclude that the evidence is a compilation of conjecture and supposition, that could not even justify suspecting the medics, let alone holding them in prison for 7 years on death penalty charges. The next, and last, session of the trial is next Tuesday (31 October), and a verdict will come in the days or weeks after.

Nature took this exceptional action of asking internationally-renowned scientists to review prosecution evidence, because the Tripoli court has denied requests by defence lawyers to have evidence from international scientists heard. So if the Libyan court refuses to hear what independent top scientists have to say, I feel it is my duty to at least have them aired before the international community, so that it can judge for itself.

October 24, 2006

44 top scientists call for Tripoli Six release in Science Magazine

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 4:18 pm

Science magazine has today joined the campaign on the Tripoli Six. Great to see the world’s two largest science magazines brothers in arms on this case. The full letter is available here.

Scientists Call for Release of Healthcare Workers in Libya Wrongly Accused of Intentionally Infecting Children with HIV.


October 23, 2006

UK Times on Tripoli Six

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

The UK Times has an Editorial piece in today’s edition: Science rallies to save the Tripoli Six from Gaddafi’s firing squads

October 20, 2006

Mp3 available of Leonard Lopate broadcast on Libya medics case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 5:47 pm

If you would like to listen to last nights Leonard Lopate WNYC show on the Tripoli Six the MP3 of the half-hour segment is now available online. Leonard discussed the case with me and David Stamps, vice president of Amnesty International USA. To download the MP3 file — click here.

Update: WYNC tell me that I can embed the audio in my blog post, so here goes my attempt.

October 18, 2006

The New York Academy of Sciences writes to Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 8:56 pm

The New York Academy of Sciences has let me know that the letter they sent on the Libyan case is now available on the Web here.

I’ve reproduced it below:

Federation of the European Academies of Medicine writes to Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi

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

The Federation of the European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) has written this letter to His Excellency Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. The letter concludes:

October 16, 2006

New York Public Radio to air 1h broadcast on Libya case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 6:23 pm

The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio (WNYC) will run a 1h broadcast on Thursday on the Tripoli Six and the current trial as part of its weekly “Underreported Series.” I’ll be the invited guest, and the live broadcast (1-2 pm EST) will cover the background of the case, where the trial stands now, and discuss its implications for the scientific community, for foreign health professionals, for human rights in Libya, etc, and the mounting protests against the trial.

It will also be broadcast on the Web here, or you can sign up to get the podcast here. This will be an excellent opportunity to get the facts of this poorly-publicised case out to a wider public, as the title of the series suggests.

Update (20th October): finally we had a half-hour segment. What was great was that David Stamp, vice president of Amnesty International USA, also joined the show. The MP3 file of the show is now available — to download click here.

October 15, 2006

Resource page for HIV Libya trial

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

Many of you have expressed difficulties in being able to quickly obtain information on the Libya HIV case, or actions that can be taken. To try to help with this, I’ve today created a very rough “resources page,” where I will try to centralize key reports, links, and action guides. I will keep this updated, so if you have any good links please send me them on

I will also shortly add court and other key documents.

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 11, 2006

Three pages of Nature on Science & Human Rights

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 9:56 pm

Dear all
Broadening out on the Libyan HIV case, given that the trial will not resume until 31 October, tomorrow’s issue of Nature takes a look at the Libyan case within the wider context of science and human rights. I’ve a two-page story in, and Nature itself also has an editorial on the topic — they should be on free access. I’m up to my neck in deadlines, but will also endeavour to so some digging on this case in the weeks to come.

Here are a few excerpts from the Editorial.

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:

October 4, 2006

AAAS issues alert on Tripoli Six

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 5:50 pm

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Program has just released this urgent alert to its extensive human rights network on the news developments on the case described here. Their appeal page also contains a useful letter generating tool.
The AAAS has taken an active interest in this case in the past, and it is good to see it weighing in again, as it has significant clout. Other scientific human rights organizations tell me that they will also be shortly issuing renewed alerts. I will keep you posted.

The full text is appended below:

October 2, 2006

Nature review of ‘Infection!’ documentary

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 6:41 pm has a review up this evening of Mickey Grant’s documentary on the six medics risking execution in Libya on concocted charges of infecting 426 children with HIV. You will remember that Mickey made his full length 1h22min documentary free on Google Video last week to help the blog campaign requesting that Libya’s courts order an independent international scientific assessment of the case, so that the medics’ innocence can be proven.


October 1, 2006

Tripoli Six update

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 6:09 pm

Effect Measure has published a brief update on the situation, including useful links, such as how to write appropriate, polite, letters. Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority also has useful links on what you can do.

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.

Bloggers rally for liberation of the ‘Tripoli Six’

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 7:08 pm

Last week, I posed a question on this blog: “Can the blogosphere help free the Tripoli six?
Although its too soon to give a definitive answer to that question, it is not too soon to say that it will not be for want of trying. The response of the science blogosphere over the past 5 days has been astonishing, with over 125 posts so far.

So much so, that I’ve written a news article on this evening — Bloggers rally for liberation of the ‘Tripoli Six’ — on the phenomenon.

September 20, 2006

Can the blogosphere help free the Tripoli six? — innocent medics risking execution in Libya

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 6:50 pm

“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… 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, leaving a handful of dedicated volunteer humanitarian lawyers and scientists to try to secure their release.

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.”

These are the opening paragraphs of an unusually strongly-worded editorial — ‘Libya’s travesty‘ — published in tomorrow’s issue of Nature.

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