Libya: Last Hope for Bulgaria's Nurses
By John K. Cooley
International Herald Tribune
Once again, the supreme court in Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi's Libya has shamefully prolonged the suspense and agony of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor by postponing until Jan. 31 its delayed verdict on the appeal of their death sentences. This followed their conviction last year of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV-AIDS.
The medics' ordeal began with their arrest in February 1999 and has involved years of prison, alleged torture and delayed trials before and after a lower Libyan court sentenced them to death in May 2004.
Bulgaria, the European Union and the United States have condemned the verdicts. President Georgi Parvanov of Bulgaria, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are among world leaders who have appealed to Qaddafi to release the accused.
International medical experts have testified that the Benghazi HIV outbreak began two years before the foreign medics' employment. Human rights experts and diplomats who visited them in prison gave credence to the allegations that torture was used to extract concessions from the nurses, two of whom have claimed they were raped in prison. But Libyan police officers put on trial under international pressure were acquitted of torture charges.
After the Nov. 15 postponement of the appeals verdict, a Bulgarian government spokesman claimed in a CNN interview that Libya had secretly offered to exchange its prisoners for Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence operative imprisoned in Britain after his conviction for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Neither the Bulgarian nor the British authorities had accepted the idea of such a trade, the spokesman said.
Qaddafi's son and possible heir to power, Saif al-Islam, and other Libyan spokesmen have openly suggested that Bulgaria could save its nurses' lives by paying "blood money" to the AIDS victims' families on a scale similar to the more than $3 billion that Libya paid to compensate families of victims of the Pan Am bombing.
Bulgaria rejected such compensation as well, arguing that it would be an admission of the medics' guilt. No one, however, in Bulgaria, the rest of Europe or the United States has excluded humanitarian and medical aid, including new hospital equipment and medical training in Libya, if the medics are released.
Though the regime has backed off from accusations in 2002 that the infections were part of a medical conspiracy by the CIA or the Israeli intelligence service to harm Libya, Qaddafi and his hard-core supporters have heavily propagandized the Libyan public to believe in the nurses' guilt. This, international observers have suggested, is a smoke screen intended to cover up scandalous hygienic conditions and bad laboratory procedures in Libya. These apparently led personnel at the Benghazi hospital to use unsterilized needles and HIV-contaminated blood transfusions on the children, more than 40 of whom have died.
Before the Libyan court's postponement of the appeal verdict, George Joffe, a lecturer at Cambridge University's Center for International Studies, defined Qaddafi's dilemma for the Reuters news agency: "He has an impossible circle to square." The court's acceptance of the mountains of evidence of the nurses' innocence and their consequent release would "enrage the local population and might spark off violence," Joffe told Reuters. "If Qaddafi can, on the other hand, find a way out, it would please everyone."
There was indeed some brief violence after the supreme court's postponement was announced. Relatives of the victims, who want the medics executed, threw bottles and stones at journalists and diplomats attending the sessions after the announcement.
A small gleam of hope appeared in a recent CNN interview with Qaddafi. Without directly referring to the acquittal of the medics' alleged torturers, Qaddafi said that if prosecution evidence had indeed been secured by torture, it couldn't stand. But Qaddafi then insisted - as he has done steadily since 1999 - that he couldn't interfere and that only the courts could decide.
The time until Jan. 31 will be one of anguished suspense, especially in Bulgaria. But it also leaves an additional opening for more foreign pressure on Qaddafi and on his cumbersome "people's" regime and justice system to exercise some sanity, compassion and firmness by finding a formula to save the accused.
Over to you, brother colonel.
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