Libya – to be continued…

The HIV scandle in Benghazi and the fate of 6 innocent medics

, by Kiril Stoychev

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Libya – to be continued…

The 8-year horror film about the 5 Bulgarian nurses Kristiyana Valtcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka, Snezhana Dimitrova and the Palestinian physician Ashraf al-Hadjudj does not seem to end soon.

Date: 19th of December 2006 Place: Tripoli, Lybia

In the Christian countries people are preparing for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, while in the Muslim states they await with eagerness their own religious holidays. But in the Libyan city Benghazi and the capital Tripoli there is no trace of a holiday mood.

The main scene takes place in the building of Libya’s Supreme Court, which is surrounded by armed security guards. It is 11 o’clock. In the big court-room are sitting a lot of men and women, who are involved in the process. They are all waiting the sentence of the highly politicised retrial. And it comes… the judge reads the verdict. The Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor are sentenced again to be shot by a firing squad for deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV while carrying out research for foreign intelligence agencies. In the hall there is a stir. Some of the attendants are shouting “God is great!”

Dozens of relatives outside the Tripoli court are chanting "Execution! Execution!“. They carry big posters with photos of AIDS ill kids and illustrations of skeletons in white suits that are going to give them the lethal injection. That is a picture which can make everybody thrill. The families want revenge. These parents have been lied to by their leader Muammar Gaddafi that the 6 medics are guilty for this monstrous outrage.

What is the scenario?

The story in this horror film begins in 1998. After the spreading of rumours about a few cases of AIDS infected kids, who were previously admitted at the children’s hospital in Benghazi the local magazine ‘La’ made investigation. The journalists found that there was a lack of hygiene and consumables at the hospital, disposable instruments were repeatedly used. At the same time - in autumn of 1998, appeared the first voices claiming the children had been infected deliberately as part of a conspiracy against the Libyan state.

The saga beginns...

The physicians and other members of the personnel of the hospital, which employed a lot of foreigners, were questioned in December 1998. Two months later another group of medics was arrested in connection with the AIDS epidemic in Benghazi. There were 23 Bulgarians. The Bulgarian Embassy was not informed about that. Most of the medics were released a few days later. The Bulgarian nurses Kristiana Vulcheva, Nassya Nenova, Valentina Siropoulo, Valya Chervenyashka and Snezhana Dimitrova, as well as Dr Zdravko Georgiev, remained in custody where they were tortured in order to confess. As a result of this Kristiana and Nassya made confessions which they later retracted.

The trial began one year later. 9 Libyan medicine workers, the 6 Bulgarian medics and the physician from Palestine, who were responsible for the administration and management of the hospital at the time, were charged with intentional infection of 393 children under the conduct of foreign secret services. Further charges against the Bulgarians were drinking in public and engaging in extramarital sex. The defendants pleaded innocent and revealed as main reason for the epidemic the poor hygiene and reuse of syringes in the hospital.

In spite of the Bulgarian government’s call for a fair and transparent trial and the information about the tortures in Benghazi prison the process was adjourned many times due to different reasons. Therefore Bulgaria accused Libya of politicising it. Non-governmental organizations also showed disapproval of the Libyan methods. Amnesty International reported "serious irregularities in pre-trial proceedings". People’s Court, which tries national security cases, returned the trial to an ordinary court citing insufficient evidence that defendants acted against Libyan security.

Outside intervention

In September 2003, the distinguished French virologist Luc Montagnier, who first isolated HIV, made a research by which he proved that the epidemic had begun before the arrival of the Bulgarian nurses and the cause for it was the poor hygiene.

Nevertheless, on 6th of March 2004 a Libyan court sentences the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to death. The nine Libyans and the Bulgarian doctor are acquitted. Few months later came the proposal of the Libyan authorities for compensation of the families with infected children which would be connected with the release of the Bulgarians. The government in Sofia refused, saying that would be an admission of guilt.

Afterwards Bulgaria, Libya, the EU and the United States agree to set up a fund to help the Libyan children and their families if Libya’s Supreme Court scraps the death sentences against the nurses and the Palestinian doctor and sends the case back to a lower court for retrial. The sum demanded by the families of the ill children from the potential donors is about 4.4 billion euros ($5.6 billion).

In spite of the diplomatic negotiations and the new scientific evidences like the international scientists’ study, published in the Nature magazine, which proved that the epidemic started before the Bulgarians had come, the new retrial ended on 19th of December 2006 with death sentences for a second time.

This decision of the Libyan court was met with the international condemnation of not only the politicians all over the world but also of the public society.

Who is the director?

The Director of this “production” is the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. After the US removed Libya from its terror list as a result of Gaddafi’s renouncement from weapons of mass destruction and compensation deal for victims of the 1988 Pan Am plane bombing over Lockerbie, the Libyan leader tried to escape from international isolation. However, the death sentences of the medics made that impossible. Now he wants to use the 5 nurses and the doctor for two purposes. Firstly, he strives for financial reimbursement of the Lockerbie recovery. He insists on paying compensation of around €10 million for each infected child’s family – the same sum like for the plane bombing. Secondly, Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city has been a centre for anti-Gaddafi Islamic fundamentalist groups in the past, and an innocent verdict could fuel opposition to the government.

The Libyan leader wants to satisfy the affected families by using the white-handed medicine workers as a scapegoat for the failings and negligence in the Benghazi hospital where the children were infected.

By doing so he removes the guilt from himself because the guilt for the epidemic is particularly on his account. In a rich country with much petrol ledges it is a crime of the authorities to give insufficient money for healthcare. So it appears that the 8-year suffering of 6 innocent medics is in his interest.

Is a happy end possible?

The strong criticism and the support from all over the world still give a hope that eventually the medics will be freed. It is necessary that the big factors in the international relations and Bulgaria have coordinated policy for this case and to exert pressure on the Libyan government to release the innocent defendants.

Since 1st of January 2007 Bulgaria is a member state of the EU and the people in the country believe that the Union will play a more active role in the Benghazi process. But the practice from this case shows that there will be no easy and fast escape from this situation.

Images:

* Libyan High Court in Tripoli 19 December 2006; source: Flickr

* Poster of Muammar al-Gaddafi; source: Flickr

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