Pay Up or Die Bulgarian Nurses Face Death Penalty in Libya
The case has been running for years. Five Bulgarian nurses and a doctor stand accused of infecting Libyan children with AIDS in a children's hospital. They have already been sentenced to death. But will diplomacy -- and the Shariah -- be enough to save them?
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi may be backing away from his hardline position on the Bulgarian nurses.
Luc Montagnier, 73, has seen a lot of suffering during his long career in medicine. The French virologist -- celebrated as a leading figure in the fight against the "plague of the 20th century" for his work in discovering the HIV virus in 1983 -- is called almost every time a new wave of AIDS strikes. Overwhelmed health authorities and government officials seem to have him on speed dial.
But the devastating conditions Montagnier found on a visit to the Fatih Clinic in the Libyan coastal city of Benghazi in 2002 shocked even him. Hundreds of children had been infected with the HIV virus because hospital personnel had not sterilized needles or isolated those infected. "It was dramatic," said Montagnier.
If that was the first act in the drama, then what may be the final act will play out in front of Libya's highest court on Tuesday, Nov. 15. Should the judges confirm the decision of a lower court, then five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor will face the death penalty. According to the prosecution, the medical guest workers allegedly infected more than 400 Libyan children with the virus. More than 40 have already died.
The execution would be the end of a long period of torture for the accused that began in 1998. In that year, the Libyan publication La brought the AIDS scandal in the children's hospital to light, and the devastating statements from the parents that ensued -- complaining of a lack of information from the clinic administrators -- shook up the carefully-controlled kingdom of revolution leader Moammar Gadhafi. His first move was to shut down the publication. The report on the AIDS problem, after all, flew in the face of a state propaganda that propagated Libya as a country without faults.
Nurses working for the CIA?
But Gadhafi wasnt finished. He also arrested Filipino, Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian clinic workers on suspicion of organizing the spread of the virus; in the end, the court only filed charges against five Bulgarian nurses, a Bulgarian doctor and a Palestinian doctor. Nine Libyan doctors were later set free. The Bulgarians, above all, became the scapegoat in the scandal to be paraded before the public as monsters that had infected Libyan children with AIDS. The absurd accusation had the nurses working for the CIA and the Israeli secret service agency Mossad.
The accusations fit the world view that Gadhafi propagated at the time: The African people, he never tired of saying, were the victims of a conspiracy between Zionists and the West. Tripoli only dropped the foreign agent charges in 2002.
The trial nevertheless became a political one. Suspects were forced into confessions, allegedly with the help of electro shocks and wooden clubs. The defense team was denied access to files and investigation results. The court has since rejected the torture claim and the accused police officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The court even ignored the testimony of the Italian microbiology professor Vittorio Colizzi and his French colleague Montagnier. Both doctors evaluated more than 200 of the infected children, who were also treated in hospitals in Rome, Geneva and France. They reached the conclusion that the virus likely spread at least half a year before the Bulgarian workers arrived at the clinic -- and had most likely originated with a child previously infected with the HIV virus.
But the experts' opinions were politically uncomfortable for Gadhafi. An admission of guilt by Libya's health care system would have played nicely into the hands of the opposition, which has been growing in strength in the country. Regime critics have long complained about the insufficient health care in their country, where hospitals lack medical equipment and sanitation despite Libya's lucrative oil income.
Killing two birds, and six Bulgarians, with one stone
The Bulgarian government in Sofia long ignored the case. After all, Gadhafi had sworn off terrorism and was just beginning a charm offensive aimed at the West. Sofia also didn't want to put good economic relations with Tripoli at risk. Libya's rulers weren't just treasured clients for Bulgarian military equipment, but around 25,000 Bulgarians worked as guest workers in the desert kingdom as well.
The shock, then, was that much bigger when a court sentenced the suspects to death in May 2004. With the sentence, the revolution leader accomplished two goals, say Western diplomats: On one hand, the harsh sentence aimed to dampen the outrage among Libyans; on the other, it was a form of punishment for Sofia's new, pro-American foreign policy.
Bulgaria has in the meantime launched a broad political campaign to save the nurses. President George Parvanov flew to Libya this past May in order to negotiate the prisoners' fate with Gadhafi. He came away with a first-hand experience as to how the Libyan propaganda machine was exploiting the case. Parvanov's airplane was even forced to take off again immediately after landing in Benghazi. On Gadhafi's orders, the plane was forced to circle the city for as long as it took to assemble the parents of the AIDS-infected children in front of Fatih Hospital. There they greeted the Bulgarian president with a made-to-order protest.
Since then, friends and relatives of the nurses, like the husband of Nurse Nasja Nenova, have a flicker of hope. Every Sunday, Ivan Nenov waits in the Bulgarian city Silven for a call from his wife. On those days, an employee of the Bulgarian embassy in Libya brings the prisoners -- held in a special building in the courtyard of Tripoli's prison -- a mobile phone with which they're allowed to call their families. Nenov is optimistic. "I don't think that they'll be executed," he says. "But I fear that they will have to stay in Libya for a lot longer."
Pay or die
And indeed, Tripoli's highest court does have some options as it meets next week: It can re-confirm the death sentences, it can order them carried out, or it can further postpone the decision. There are precedents for all three options, but what is more likely is that the judges formally support the decision of their colleagues in Benghazi. "Paradoxically," says one Western diplomat in Libya, "that might not be the worst solution. The legal process would come to an end and the way would be open for political negotiations."
Signals out of Benghazi indicate that Gadhafi himself may become involved in the case. The revolution leader, who in the meantime sees himself as an ally in Washington's fight against terrorism, appears to have realized that the scapegoat strategy is endangering his new pact with the West. "We want to solve the case as quickly as possible," Foreign Minister Abd al-Rahman Shalgam informed his Bulgarian counterpart recently.
The chief diplomat has in the mean time speculated on an Islamic solution to the crisis: The Koran offers the court several possibilities for a negotiated solution even in serious crimes, as long as the victims are satisfied, he explained.
By this he means the payment of blood money, a concept embedded in Islamic "Sharia" law. The Libyan authorities could then withdraw the charges or the parents of the infected children could ask the court to lift the death sentence. The amount in damages is up for negotiation --the principle isn't. The choice is clear: pay or die.
Up until now, Libyan officials have been demanding $10 million for every infected child -- a sum that adds up to almost half of Sofia's foreign debt. Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin rejected the demand. "We can't pay for a debt that we haven't incurred," he said.
"I want them free"
There are indications that Sofia is using several EU aid projects as cover to meet at least a portion of the demands. Brussels representatives signed a Bulgaria-initiated agreement in Tripoli on Sept. 5 that called for a main clinic in Benghazi for the treatment of young AIDS patients. Bulgaria and several other European countries will finance the project.
At the same time the West is also training Libyan doctors in how to treat AIDS patients. A Bulgarian organization dedicated to "better relations with Libya" also met with the parents of the AIDS infected children in Benghazi. It is unclear, though, whether such programs will be enough to save the six sentenced to death.
Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, whose foundation has been observing the trial since 2000, reportedly admitted recently that "Libya isn't without guilt in the AIDS outbreak." Gadhafi junior, in addition to this statement, reportedly also confirmed that the suspects were tortured.
Bulgarian President Parvanov has secured extra support, as a precaution. He traveled to Washington D.C. and presented the case to US President George W. Bush. Parvanov said the American President said only, "I want them free."
Translated from the German by Andreas Tzortzis