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.