Declan Butler, reporter

December 18, 2006

US State Department’s public face on Libya HIV case

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 12:33 am

Sean McCormack is the US State Department’s official spokesman. But he doesn’t seem to be very well-briefed on the death penalty trial in Libya of 5 Bulgarian nurses, and a Palestinian doctor, accused of injecting over 400 children with HIV, even though the verdict is expected next Tuesday.


He was questioned on 6 December about the Nature paper providing solid molecular evidence that the outbreak of the HIV strain implicated in the trial was already present and spreading locally in the mid-1990′s, years before the March 1998 date when the prosecution argues that the accused medics organized to begin deliberately injecting children at the hospital with the HIV strain.

Here was his response on 6 December:

QUESTION: There’s a scientific study published in — by a British magazine today that would seem to set a scientific basis that those accused in the Libya HIV trial could not be guilty just because of findings that apparently the HIV infections in Libya began far before they were accused of being involved. Is this something that the United States would commend to the Libyan authorities? There was supposed to be a verdict in the second trial coming up within a matter of days. This would seem to be exonerating information. Is that something you would raise with them?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I’m not sure. I’m not sure we’d bring it up — bring up a magazine article like that. Look, this is a terrible tragedy in which people — you know, innocent people lost their lives, it really is. It’s just a terrible, terrible thing. It caused a lot of grief and pain. We understand that. That said, we have for some time said that we think it’s important that those nurses and medics be returned to their home country at the earliest possible moment.

Ok, so McCormack didn’t know on 6 December that Nature is, in fact, the world’s top peer-reviewed scientific journal, and that this is not a “magazine article”. But he then get’s a chance to redeem his ignorance at a press briefing on 7 December. Does he take it? No; in the face of an internationally-charged case, where lives, and fundamental principles, dear to democracies, are at stake, he shows frivilous disinterest.

MR. MCCORMACK: Nicholas.

QUESTION: Sean, there is a new report out today by Oxford scientists that says that the infections with HIV in Libya –

MR. MCCORMACK: (Inaudible) asked about this yesterday.

QUESTION: — have occurred –

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: So was that discussed yesterday?

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Well, it came out today. Okay, anyway, so that –

MR. MCCORMACK: You must have got an advanced copy of it. I think Gollust might have actually asked the question. (Laughter.) Very surprised by the people that don’t read the transcripts, Nicholas. This has just revealed that you don’t read the transcripts.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m very disappointed by that. You have to show up here more.

QUESTION: I was off, sorry.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. Okay.

The videos of the press briefings of 6 and 7 December are here.

Back in 2005, before the US reestablished diplomatic and economic relations with Libya, State Dept press briefings often gave a straighter answer on its position re the case. Here is how Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman, answered a question on the case in October last year.

“We believe that the people in Libya who have been sentenced did not receive due process, did not receive a fair trial, are being unfairly blamed for a tragedy, which was the deaths of children, I believe. But the medics should be released. We have made this clear to the Government of Libya. The EU, I think, has made it clear to the Government of Libya and we look to the Libya Government or Libya to do the right thing in this case.”

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