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by Claudia Ciobanu

Now That Libya Is Disarmed, Countries Vie To Sell It New Weapons (2004)

(IPS) BUCHAREST -- The release of six Bulgarian medics detained in Libya for eight years seems to have led to a sudden "normalization of ties" between Libya and the European Union.

In 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were imprisoned in Libya for allegedly intentionally infecting 426 infants with HIV. The medics had been working since 1998 in a hospital in Benghazi province. Almost 50 of those children have died.

On May 6, 2004, the Criminal Court in Benghazi sentenced the five Bulgarians and the Palestinian to death by firing squad.

The medics denied having purposefully infected the infants, and several specialist reports -- including one published in 2006 by renowned magazine 'Nature' confirmed their claim that the infections were a result of poor hygiene in the hospital and that the virus had started to be transmitted to patients before the medics' arrival in Libya.

Ever since the sentence was passed, Bulgarian authorities, aided by officials from other European states, have been negotiating with the Libyan government for the release of the prisoners. The Palestinian doctor received Bulgarian citizenship in order to benefit from any deal cut. Efforts were intensified after Jan 1, 2007, when Bulgaria became a member of the EU.

On Jul 17, 2007, Libya's High Judicial Council confirmed the Supreme Court's decision to commute the death sentences on the six to life sentences. The Bulgarian authorities immediately initiated procedures for the prisoners to be transferred to Bulgaria, and on Jul. 24 the six arrived in Sofia, and were pardoned the same day by President Georgi Parvanov.

The release of the nurses is the result of a political agreement reached between Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and EU representatives. "The deal is supposed to include some financial transfers from EU to Libya to help infected children, as well as visa and trade facilitation between Libya and the EU," Jean Combrois, professor of European studies at the American University in Bulgaria told IPS.

"Libya is considered an important partner by the EU," Combrois said, "not only because of its oils and gas reserves, but also in dealing with more specific problems such as the fight against terrorism and, perhaps more importantly, the fight against illegal immigration. On top of this, Libya is a key partner in order to deal with crises in Africa."

One day after the arrival of the medics in Sofia, French President Nicolas Sarkozy went on an official visit to Libya. From Tripoli, the French official announced the signing of a nuclear cooperation memorandum between the two countries, which should lead to France building a nuclear reactor in the North African country.

The French President and his wife Cecile Sarkozy have been particularly visible during the last stage of the negotiations for the release of the medics, raising questions whether the presidential couple was trying to "seize the moment" to improve their own and their country's reputation.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Euro-MP and Green Party leader, commented: "Sarkozy just wanted to find something for Cecilia to do so she had a reason to exist. What we are witnessing is this couple's therapy."

The comment, cynical as it is, does raise the question whether the international community has been too fast to congratulate itself for the successful resolution of this case.

Bulgaria forgave Libya's Soviet-era debt of $54 million. Private Bulgarian companies have offered apartments and money to the six medics. The families of the infected children will each receive compensations of roughly one million dollars. But such remunerations are not enough.

In a press conference by the Bulgarian medics Jul. 25, one of them declared: "Now we just want our previous life back but we do not know yet how that could happen."

Meanwhile, in Libya, relatives of the infected children are protesting against the release of the medics. Some Libyan officials, opposed to the deal cut by leader Gaddafi, argue that the pardoning of the medics breaches a prisoner transfer agreement signed in 1984 between Libya and Bulgaria.

More importantly, the resolution of this case by way of cutting a political deal raises concerns that there are no international legal safeguards that can prevent such incidents from happening again.

"We are relieved that the nurses' and the medic's imprisonment is over," Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of the U.S.-based group 'Physicians for Human Rights' told IPS. "But this is really an outrageous case, in which the lives of these nurses and medic were literally ransomed for $400 million.

"Human rights, civil rights, and scientific evidence were completely ignored. There is nothing to prevent the future scapegoating of foreign health workers and holding them hostage in exchange for foreign aid."

The commutation of the death penalty "is a welcome decision on the part of the Libyan authorities," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program. "They should now proceed to implement much-needed reforms to the criminal justice system to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again."

Perhaps the most serious question raised by this case refers to the number of people that get infected by life-threatening viruses such as HIV merely because medical centers in developing countries cannot afford to meet basic hygiene conditions.

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Albion Monitor   July 27, 2007   (

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