Declan Butler, reporter

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…

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