Five nurses and a doctor face the death pen alty in Libya for allegedly having intentionally infected more than 400 children with HIV. Scientific reports proving her innocence were not recognized by the court. Tuesday is the last day of negotiations.
On the one hand: mysterious blood tests with HIV antibodies, confessions extracted under torture, questionable statements by witnesses for the prosecution. On the other hand: comprehensive reports from internationally recognized AIDS experts, which unequivocally exonerate the accused. The case is clear, one would think – and you are wrong. Despite clear evidence, Palestinian doctor Ashraf Ahmad Jum'a and Bulgarian nurses Nasya Nenova, Kristiana Valceva, Valya Chervenyashka, Valentina Siropulo and Kristiana Valcheva fear the judges will sentence them to death again in the coming weeks.
Because on Tuesday, October 31, the hearing ends in a procedure that has provoked violent protests from scientists and human rights organizations worldwide. "We want to make people angry, so that they can turn on their governments act"
(Robert Gallo) In an open letter, renowned researchers such as HIV discoverer Luc Montagnier, Robert Gallo, Vittorio Colizzi and dozens more are calling on their governments to do everything possible to free those who have been imprisoned for almost eight years to reach. Money, medical help, knowledge transfer - the West should give what it has to offer in the fight against HIV. Libya should not "create more victims of the AIDS epidemic - in this case the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor", write the researchers . "We want to make people angry so they can influence their governments," Gallo said.
Thin Evidence from the Prosecutor
The drama began in 1998 when a Libyan monthly magazine reported that 426 children had been infected with HIV at Benghazi's Al Fateh Hospital. International and local doctors and nurses were then arrested on suspicion of intentionally spreading the virus. In 2001, head of state Gaddafi even went so far as to claim that an action by the secret services of the USA and Israel was behind it – statements which he later retracted. Since the investigators had found vessels with blood containing HIV antibodies in the apartment of one of the Bulgarian nurses, the suspicion prevailed that the whole thing was a covert drug experiment.
While most of those initially accused were released within two years, an ordeal began for the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian Art. "We were willing to sign anything to end the agony"
(Kristiana Valceva) Electric shocks, sexual threats and assaults, beatings were used to extract false confessions. Apparently, the threats also included infecting the accused themselves with HIV. The ready-made confessions were in Arabic, the nurses said, with no translation. But "we were willing to sign anything to end the torment," Kristiana Valceva told Humans Right Watch. The six defendants did not receive legal assistance from a lawyer until they were in the courtroom.
Following international protests, ten molesters were tried. One of the defendants was himself a doctor. The court acquitted all cases in June 2005.
Fundamental counter-arguments of the defense
In 2003, the court requested an opinion from the two AIDS experts Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi. The researchers examined many of the affected children and concluded that the infection must have occurred before the Bulgarian nurses arrived. Since many children were also infected with hepatitis B and C, the researchers concluded that poor hygiene conditions and unsterilized instruments were responsible for the transmission - possibly from a single child who had introduced the virus. Genetic studies also refuted Gaddafi's accusations that it was a genetically modified pathogen from secret services: the virus apparently belongs to a subtype that is widespread in West and Central Africa, which is highly virulent and easily transmissible, but was still rare in Libya.
The two scientists explained that the blood samples could by no means serve as proof of guilt: the results of a protein analysis were "too vague", says Montagnier - "they say nothing at all", says Colizzi. In order to prove that the vessels actually contained HI viruses, a test for the viral RNA would have had to be carried out. But that was missed.
But: The report was not approved by the court - it was too "hypothetical" and "not accurate enough". Instead, the judges based their verdict on statements by five Libyan doctors that there was no written evidence of reused disposable syringes and that poor hygiene conditions in Libya were not a problem. "There is a shocking lack of evidence"
(Janine Jagger) The hospital in Benghazi is even considered to be particularly exemplary. The outbreak, on the other hand, is so extensive that a deliberate, malignant infection cannot be ruled out. Because what shouldn't be can't be, the report apparently turned the argument around: "He wrongly made missing evidence into evidence of the absence," explains Robin Weiss, a virologist at University College London."There is a shocking lack of evidence," comments Janine Jagger, an epidemiologist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville .
An Incomprehensible Judgment
Although a further report by Swiss virologist Luc Perrin, who treated many of the children, confirmed Montagnier and Colizzi's conclusions, the Benghazi court handed down the death sentence on May 5, 2004.
However, on December 25, 2005, an international storm of protest led the Tripoli High Court to overturn the verdict and order an appeal. Again, however, statements by international experts were not allowed. Instead, negotiations began to pay damages to the parents - based on the payments that Libya itself had made after the plane crash in Lockerbie, the parents' lawyers are apparently demanding up to 11 million dollars per infected child. The Bulgarian government refuses to pay outright "ransom" for the release of the nurses, but has shown itself willing to set up a fund for the infected children with the help of the European Union and the United States and to support medical training for Libyans. Perhaps, so many hope, a way could be found to calm the troubled minds of the parents and allow the six accused to be free.
Way out through the diplomatic back door?
It is now known that the first case of AIDS in the children was diagnosed in June 1997 - a year before the nurses and the doctor had started work in Benghazi. A second followed a few months later, said Achris Ahmed, head of the HIV committee set up in Benghazi last year to investigate the case. But little was known about the virus because there is no AIDS in Libya, said Ahmed, following the official line.
The situation, it seems, is clearer than ever. "The decision will most likely be a very bad one."
(Emmanuel Altit) And yet, on August 29, the Libyan prosecutor again asked for the death sentence. And Emmanuel Altit, one of the defenders, is pessimistic: "The decision will most likely be a very bad one." International observers suspect that the accused are being used as scapegoats for the failures of the responsible he alth authorities.
Don't forget us
One can only hope that open international pressure or perhaps even diplomatic negotiations behind closed doors will bring about a solution. In any case, Libya never tires of emphasizing that its courts work independently and are not influenced by it. "We know we are the victims of a political witch hunt. We're burned out, mentally burned out," said Kristiana Vulcheva . "Please don't forget us."