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

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:

Libya has responded vigorously to the international community’s reassertion that it should ensure a fair and impartial trial, and for scientific evidence to be taken in account. Its foreign ministry has denounced Western political interference as creating a dangerous precedent in which Libyans are considered “sub-human” and treated differently from Bulgarians. It added that the political stance expressed by the Bulgarian government, European Union countries and others shows “a clear bias to certain values that are likely to trigger wars, conflicts and cause enmity between religions and civilizations”.

The case of the health professionals is an eminently scientific one, and the protests of the global scientific community are a defence not of Western values, but of universal and fundamental values, including the basic right to a fair and impartial trial, and to be allowed to present all the evidence. These are values to which Libya itself subscribes, having signed many international human-rights treaties.

But the Libyan case also involves other values. The first is the humanitarian value of alleviating the tragedy of the infected children. An international fund has been set up to help treat the children in European hospitals, and to strengthen Libya’s expertise in dealing with HIV. The international community should continue to strengthen these efforts as part of its solidarity with both the Libyan people and the affected families.

The unfortunate politicization of this case has also diverted attention from another value: the right to safe health care. The transmission of HIV in medical settings in many countries is a large but often ‘invisible’ problem that is only heard about when it reaches the scale of the Benghazi outbreak, or one in Kazakhstan last summer in which almost 100 children were infected with HIV.

The scientific community, faced with the injustice of the Libyan trial, has acted resolutely. But it must do more to press home the less immediately compelling but equally tragic battlegrounds that the Libyan case highlights in the fight against HIV.

And from the long news article:

Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union (EU) on 1 January will allow it to apply ever-greater international pressure in the political row over the fate of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor condemned to death in Libya last month.

“We simply cannot accept this verdict,” says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commission’s foreign minister. In a letter to the Libyan foreign ministry she pointed to the “recent publication of a strong body of scientific evidence concerning the origin and timing of the Benghazi infection…I very much regret that this new element was not deemed worth considering in the legal proceedings thus far and hope it will be duly taken into consideration by the Supreme Court.”

The EU’s direct language raises the stakes in the power play that surrounds the case. Until now, the international community’s approach has mostly been one of ‘silent diplomacy’ — refraining from public criticism of Libya’s handling of the case and relying on behind-the-scenes discussions. These interventions have centred on providing humanitarian aid, which might be seen as compensation (and thus a mitigating factor in Islamic law), while trying not to undercut the medical workers’ defence with any implication of guilt and atonement. All the affected Libyan children are being treated in European hospitals.

The death sentences mark the failure of this approach, says Emmanual Altit, the French human-rights lawyer who heads the international defence team. Altit has long criticized the politicization of the case, arguing that it acts against the interests of the six medical workers by making them a bargaining chip in Libya’s relations with the West.

Libya’s leadership now has greater incentive than ever to avoid diplomatic ructions; but there is substantial resistance to being seen as capitulating to pressure from the West. Gaddafi dug in his heels on 29 December by rejecting calls to release the medical team, and reasserting that intelligence agencies were behind the crime.

According to diplomatic sources, the most optimistic outcome for the moment is that the six medical workers will remain condemned, but that a political solution will be found to have them freed. But the situation is increasingly volatile — and for the moment they remain in grave danger.

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