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After a trial lasting five years seven foreign medics accused of deliberately infecting more than four hundred children with the HIV virus will have to wait a little longer to discover their fate.
A court in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, was due to deliver its verdict today (15/04/04) but a spokesman said this was delayed until May the 6th after one of the judges fell ill. More than forty children have died since the trial began in February 1999 and the controversial case has provoked a heated debate across the globe.
Along with the human rights charity, Amnesty International, countries including Bulgaria, Britain, the European Union and the United States have all protested to the Libyan government over the time the trial has taken and the way the defendants have been treated. The five Bulgarian nurses and one doctor, along with a Palestinian Physician, claim to have been brutally tortured during their stay in jail with electric shocks, sexual assault and daily beatings. The police officers accused of doing this are now also on trial in the same courtroom though they claim to have been tortured themselves by officials intent on getting them to confess to carrying out the abuse.
The case centres on the Fateh Children’s’ Hospital in Benghazi where 426 children have contracted the HIV virus which causes AIDS since the late 1990’s. The Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor all worked at the hospital at the time. In 1999 they were brought before a Peoples Court, places normally reserved for political prisoners, and accused of deliberately infecting the children with the HIV virus. They were charged with “conspiracy to murder” in what the prosecution described as a “Zionist plot to undermine Libya”. The seven became the most hated people in Libya. The country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was later to say: “This is something terrible, a catastrophe, an odious crime. We have found a doctor and a group of nurses who possessed the HIV virus and who were asked to experiment on the children in question.” The Colonel added that he suspected that the research was commissioned by either the CIA or the Israeli secret service, MOSSAD.
The case has since been moved to an ordinary criminal court but the seven still face the death penalty if convicted. In an effort to counter claims that the seven foreigners are being used as scapegoats by the Libyan Health Service the court agreed to allow international medical experts to look at the evidence. One of these was Dr Luc Montagnier, the man widely credited with being the first to identify the link between HIV and AIDS. Dr Montagnier, who is now President for the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, concluded that there is no evidence to prove that the HIV epidemic was caused deliberately. He insists that it was far more likely to have been the result of basic medical blunders by a wide variety of hospital staff. Other factors, he believes, were poor sanitary conditions, a shortage of disposable needles and the hospital’s failure to screen blood products properly. Dr Montagnier also claims that he was prevented to examining some vital evidence that could have conclusively proved whether or not the defendants were guilty.
Some of the families of the infected children are now seeking more than five million pounds in compensation for what happened and the heat generated by the charges shows no signs of dying down. It’s widely believed, however, that the defendant’s best hopes lie in the fact that the Libyan government is increasingly keen to be fully accepted once more by the international community. This makes the chances of the seven finally being released when the verdict is announced increasingly likely. But Bulgaria’s Ambassador in Tripoli, Zdravko Velev, is not daring to count his chickens just yet:
“I try to be optimistic but you there is an old saying. From Libya there is always coming something new.”
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