The Condemned Six of Benghazi

Benghazi is an old city lying on the Mediterranean in northeast Libya. It has seen its share of conquest, mainly by the Greek, Roman and Byzantium empires, but the conquest of 7th century Muslim Arabs holds sway over the city to this day. The second capital of Libya after Tripoli, Benghazi's current appellation was derived after a 15th century man named Seedi Ghazi; a charitable soul who contributed greatly to the city and its inhabitants. 

Almost six hundred years later it has become ironic that the residents of Benghazi, a city named after a person of philanthropy, would label an equally benevolent medical staff consisting of five nurses and one doctor as pariahs worthy of execution.

It all began in 1998 when two Bulgarian nurses working at the Benghazi Children's Hospital were detained by Libyan authorities. By mid 2004, five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor were delivered death sentences by the criminal court of Benghazi. According to the Libyan government, the medical staff had deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.

Conspiracy theories abound

In this day of instantaneous communication many have fallen prey to urban legends or revisionist history, but no where on the planet do conspiracy theories take root more than in the Arab world.

Arab and Muslim people are hurt, wronged and in turn feed conspiracy theories to the young minds it becomes easier for Muslims in general and Arabs in particular to explain our failure as a conspiracy against us; to blame others for all our problems.

The same holds true for the community of Benghazi.  Fanned by relentless government propaganda, the city's residents have come to believe the condemned medical staff to be agents of the Israeli Mossad bent on harming Libya. And wherever the Mossad is operating the CIA must have an active role, for the Agency has been accused of being a major contributor of the HIV infections.

Accusations of torture

While Libyan authorities claim the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor willingly confessed to their crimes, the foreign health workers held in a Tripoli prison now say their confessions were extracted via torture.

'I confessed during torture with electricity. They put small wires on my toes and on my thumbs. Sometimes they put one on my thumb and another on either my tongue, neck or ear,' Valentina Siropulo, one of the Bulgarian defendants, told Human Rights Watch. 'They had two kinds of machines, one with a crank and one with buttons.'

Another Bulgarian defendant, Kristiana Valceva, said interrogators used a small machine with cables and a handle that produced electricity.

'During the shocks and torture they asked me where the AIDS came from and what is your role,' she told Human Rights Watch. She said that Libyan interrogators subjected her to electric shocks on her breasts and genitals.

'My confession was all in Arabic without translation,' she said. 'We were ready to sign anything just to stop the torture.'

Blood money and deference to Shari'a

Tiny Bulgaria is poised to join the EU in 2007 and doesn't want to embarrass its larger European masters, so it has adopted a pragmatic approach when dealing with Libya. Bulgaria agreed to Libyan demands for modern medical equipment and even offered to restructure $27 million in Libyan debt, but the staunch Balkan Republic balked when Libya suggested a payment of 'blood money.' The International Herald—Tribune reports:

But Libya has countered that Bulgaria should also negotiate a payment of "blood money" to the families of the infected children, saying that the families might then express forgiveness toward the nurses and ask for dismissal of the court case, a procedure permitted under Islamic law.

The Libyan figure of $10 million for each child draws parallels to the $10 million Libya agreed to pay each of the families of the 270 people killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 by its agents over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. For Bulgaria, it would amount to 25 percent of its gross domestic product. The Bulgarian government has rejected the idea. It rejects the concept of "blood money," Kalfin said. "Second, there's no way to compare this to Lockerbie."

The seven—year long incident appears more and more to be a criminal act of extortion by the Libyan government rather than any wrongdoing by the foreign medical staff.

The real cause of the HIV transfer and a son's admission

French virologist Luc Montagnier, whose work was paramount in discovering the HIV virus, visited the Benghazi Children's Hospital in 2002 and what he saw shocked even him.  Calling the situation 'dramatic' Mr. Montagnier concluded that hundreds of children had been infected with HIV because hospital staff did not properly sterilize needles or isolate those children already infected.

The decision to execute the Bulgarian nurses along with the Palestinian doctor was supposed to have been made on November 15th.  The ruling was delayed until January 31st 2006 by Supreme Court judge Ali al—Alus.  Five days prior to the final appeal, the influential son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al—Islam, responded to the question of whether he thought the nurses were guilty.

"Personally I don't think so, but nevertheless we have a tragedy. Whether it's a conspiracy as they said, which I don't believe in, or negligence or mismanagement, at the end we have a tragedy which is a matter of fact and we can't ignore. You know, I'm not a forensic expert but I don't think that it was a plot or a conspiracy. This is my own perception."

Mr. al—Islam insists the Bulgarian government settle the matter with the victim's families by monetary means.  Bulgaria refuses on the ground that 'this would be tantamount to admitting guilt.'

What is to be done?

The tragedy of this story is that fifty children infected with HIV have already died, but to make scapegoats of six medical workers for the scandalous hygienic conditions and bad laboratory procedures practiced by Libyan officials only compounds the tragedy. Some of the nurses have already languished in captivity for seven years. The key to their release will have to be admission by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that he and his government were wrong. Mr. Gaddafi appears to be working in that direction.

Bulgaria's National Television reported that the newspaper is citing sources close to the Libyan government as saying that a session of the General People's Congress, the country's supreme institution, is being prepared. At that session the Congress is said to make amendments to the punishing law and an amendment concerning the death sentence.

According to the article the intention of the law reforms will be to allow either the General People's Congress or Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi the right to abolish the death sentence without consultations with the Supreme Judicial Court.

Time will tell if this approach will finally secure the release of the condemned six of Benghazi.