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Death Penalty Information

Monday, January 08, 2007

Libya: medical workers death sentences confirmed
Libyan court confirms death sentence against medical workers

For the 2nd time in 2 years, 6 medical workersfive Bulgarian nurses and
one Palestinian physicianhave been sentenced to die by firing squad by the
Libyan authorities.
The "Benghazi Six"Kristiana Vulcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo,
Valya Chervenyashka, Snezhana Dimitrova and Ashraf Al Hagoughave been
effectively held as hostages since 1999 on fabricated charges of
introducing the HIV virus into a childrens hospital. They were condemned
by the Libyan Criminal Court on December 19 at the conclusion of a retrial
lasting 5 months. Reports indicate that the workers mental and physical
health is very bad, and at least one has considered suicide.
In 1998, the magazine of the Libyan Writers Association, Laa reported that
HIV infection had appeared in Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi.
The report triggered multiple complaints from the childrens parents of a
lack of information from the clinic's administrators. Parents suspected
that the infection had been transferred via blood transfusion.
The response from the Libyan government was severe. Benghazi, Libya's 2nd
city with a population of 1 million has long been a centre of opposition
to Colonel Muammar Gadhaffis government. In the late 1990s, Islamic groups
launched attacks on government posts on the citys fringes. Alarmed at the
possibility of the HIV outbreak becoming a focus for public anger over the
real state of health and social conditions, Gadhaffi closed down Laa, had
Filipino, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Libyan and Palestinian health workers
arrested, and started an anti-foreigner witch-hunt. He dismissed the
health minister, Dr Solaiman al-Ghemari, and claimed that the CIA was
responsible for the infection.
Most of those arrested were eventually released. But the 6 remaining in
custody were accused of working for an external power, charged with
indiscriminate killing for the purposes of subversion and conspiring to
infect hundreds of children at the hospital with HIV. They were tortured
and held incommunicado for months, and a "confession" was extracted from
one of the nurses that she had injected children with contaminated
products. The confession was retracted in 2001.
International scientific outcry
International medical opinion rejected the Libyan government's
accusations, pointing instead to the decrepit state of the Libyan
healthcare system, undermined by years of UN and US sanctions, as the
source of HIV infection.
A 2002 report by the Italian National Institute for Infectious diseases
stated that by the spring of 1999 it was possible to point to infection in
402 children, every one of whom had received intravenous fluids,
antibiotics, steroids or bronchodilators between February and September
1998. The report concluded that one particular strain of the virus was
involved, and it was likely of West African origin.
In 2003, Professor Luc Montaigner, one of those credited with identifying
the HIV virus, and his colleague Professor Vittorio Collizzi produced a
report tracing the development of the Benghazi epidemic from a "patient
zero" who was present in the hospital in 1997before the victimised medics
started work. The 2 eminent scientists presented this evidence in the 2004
trial, which in May of that year sentenced the medical workers to death.
Immediately after the verdict, Libya let it be known that the death
sentences were negotiable. Ramadan al-Fitouri, head of a group
representing the families and undoubtedly speaking with government
approval, demanded that the infected children be treated in Europe, an HIV
clinic be opened in Benghazi and compensation paid for each child. The
compensation figure eventually settled at around US$10 million per child,
in total more than US$4 billion. This remains the Libyan position, and the
medical workers are hostages until such time as the government is paid.
To this end, after the 2004 verdict, the Libyan Supreme Court threw out
the verdict in 2005 and ordered a retrial. The long-delayed Criminal Court
retrial eventually opened July 2006, and after going over the same ground,
the court reached the same verdict and sentenced them to death once again.
Recent articles insisting on the hospital workers' innocence have appeared
in the Lancet and Nature, and protests were registered by 114 Nobel
Laureates, the UK Royal College of Nursing, Amnesty International, Human
Rights Watch, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and
the American Chemical Society.
The case can be appealed again to the Supreme Court.
The medical workers and Libya's rehabilitation
The medical workers' lives have become pawns in international machinations
surrounding efforts to reintegrate the former pariah regime, and the
immense oil reserves within its territory, into the affairs of world
By the early 1980s, the left-posturing nationalist Gadhaffi regime was
increasingly isolated following the intensification of the US government's
"roll-back" strategy designed to increase pressure on the Soviet Union. In
1981, 2 Libyan fighters were shot down by US aircraft, and in 1985, all
Libyan products were banned from the US, while in 1986, US aircraft bombed
Tripoli and Benghazi.
Blame for the December 1988 attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie,
Scotland, became a political issue. The US and British governments
initially pinned the bombing on Iran, but, following Iranian acquiescence
over the 1991 Desert Storm invasion of Iraq, pointed the finger at Libya
and used the Lockerbie disaster as a pretext to introduce United Nations
sanctions on that country in 1992.
In 1999, diplomatic relations with the UK were restored as part of a deal
organised with the assistance of the UN. Under its terms, Libyans
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah were handed over to be
tried for the Lockerbie attack. The medical workers disappeared from their
lodgings a matter of weeks before al-Megrahi and Fhimah were flown to the
Netherlands for trial.
The healthcare workers' arrest allowed the government to make use of them
in two ways: as scapegoats for the HIV crisis in Benghazi and to divert
attention in Libya from the decision to hand over two citizens for a trial
held in the Netherlands, under Scottish law, on a former US airbase.
Fhimah was eventually released, but al-Megrahi was sentenced to 20 years
in jail and remains in Greenock prison.
In 2003, Libya agreed with the US and Britain to pay US$2.7 billion
compensation to the family members of the 270 killed in the Lockerbie
crash. The US$4 billion compensation requested after the foreign medical
workers' 2st death sentence in 2004 was interpreted as a counterclaim to
the Lockerbie pay-off. In fact, the children's families' request of US$10
million per infected child matches the amount paid each of the families in
the Lockerbie deaths.
Investment flood
In the aftermath of Libya's compensation agreement, its renunciation of
its nuclear programme and the assistance offered against Al Qaeda in 2003,
the US government accelerated steps to end economic sanctions, open
travel, trade and diplomatic relations. In 2006, it finally removed Libya
from the list of states alleged to be sponsoring terrorism.
Prodigious volumes of investment, along with restored diplomatic and
military ties, have followed. In addition to reviving longstanding
relations between Libya and Marathon Oil, Amerada Hess and Conoco, most of
the worlds major oil companies have bought exploration and exploitation
rights in Libya.
Players include BP, Exxon, Gazprom, Nippon Oil and Petrobas. Libya also
has large-scale and lucrative infrastructure, engineering and aircraft
contracts. Investment flows into Libya were estimated at US$6-US$7 billion
in 2004. Seven billion dollars' worth of contracts were reported to be on
offer in 2006, while the country has built up financial reserves of more
than US$30 billion. One US$3 billion oil refinery has been approved and
another is under consideration. A number of free-trade zones have been
established. According to Harvard Business School economist Michael
Porter, the country has "one of the highest rates of business formation in
the world" and is "contributing to the wealth and stability of surrounding
As well as a string of high-profile political visitors, including top US
diplomats in 2006, Libya has been incorporated into US military plans for
the region. Libya featured on the list of CIA rendition flight stopover
points. France and Italy have held joint military exercises with Libyan
forces, and the country is viewed by the European Union as a key ally in
policing immigration on its southern shores.
The frenzied competition for Libyan oil rights, arms and infrastructure
contracts and influence explains the muted complaints from world leaders
over the verdict delivered against the medical workers. US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice stated that she was "disappointed" by the verdict,
while a spokesman for the EU, Johannes Laitenberger, said he was shocked.
Speaking for the UN, Secretary General Kofi Annan hoped that a "humane
solution" could be found.
None of the major powers wants to upset the Gadhaffi government too much.
And none of them are prepared to offer the compensation payments it
demands for the families of the HIV-infected children, although some
children have received treatment in Europe and small sums have been
offered for a local clinic.
In addition to the question of acceding to Libyan blackmail, none of the
major powers would want to set the precedent of a significant transfer of
wealth from the rich to poor countries to alleviate the HIV crisis
overwhelming large areas of Africa. While the Benghazi case involves
around 400 children, according to the World Health Organisation there are
23,000 people living with HIV in Libya alone, while in sub-Saharan Africa
totals are in excess of 24.5 million.
(source: Asian Tribune
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