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 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

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