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

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.

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