Bulgarian and Palestinian Health Professionals Freed from Libyan Jail and Returned to Bulgaria
July 24, 2007
Eight and a half years after their arrest on charges of intentionally infecting children with the HIV virus in a Libyan pediatric hospital, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical doctor were freed from jail this morning and extradited to Bulgaria. Upon arrival in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, they were officially pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. (The Palestinian medical doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Jum’a al-Hajuj, was granted Bulgarian citizenship so that he could benefit from a treaty between Libya and Bulgaria that allowed for the extradition of the health professionals.) The health professionals were brought to Bulgaria aboard a French presidential plane, escorted by European Union External Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy. Their release was the result of lengthy and complex negotiations between Libya and the European Union, including payment of approximately U.S. $1 million to the family of each infected child and an agreement of enhanced relations between Libya and the European Union. According to press statements by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam—head of the Gaddafi Foundation which facilitated negotiations between the Libyan state and the families of the infected children—Libya provided the payments to each child’s family; and Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic contributed by forgiving Libya’s foreign debt.
International pressure—from Western governments as well as the scientific community—clearly played a significant role in raising the international profile of the case and, it would appear, in achieving a successful outcome. According to Emmanuel Altit, one of the lawyers on the medics’ international defense team, ”The efforts to mobilize Western governments to act by increasing international public opinion have paid off. The concerted efforts of the scientific community around the case played a fundamental role in changing the trajectory of the case and helping to secure today’s outcome.”
The CHR and its parent academies—the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and Institute of Medicine (IOM)—actively worked for the release of the health professionals throughout their lengthy incarceration. In response to Action Alerts issued by the CHR, members of the NAS, NAE, and IOM and academies abroad that participate in the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies sent more than 120 letters of appeal to the Libyan authorities. In 2004 then NAS President Bruce Alberts and IOM President Harvey Fineberg sent a joint letter to Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi requesting his humanitarian intervention. In early 2007 the Presidents of the NAS, NAE, and IOM sent a joint letter to Colonel al-Gaddafi expressing interest in expanding scientific collaboration and appealing for the imprisoned health professionals to be released. The letter was given to Colonel al-Gaddafi by an NAS member during a one-on-one meeting with the Libyan leader.
The five Bulgarian nurses (Valya Georgieva Chervenyashka, Snezhana Ivanova Dimitrova, Nasya Stojcheva Nenova, Valentina Manolova Siropulo, and Kristiana Malinova Valcheva) and Palestinian medical doctor Ashraf Ahmad Jum’a al-Hajuj were arrested in early 1999 and subsequently convicted of deliberately infecting several hundred children with the HIV virus and causing the deaths of 40 while working in al-Fateh Children’s Hospital in Benghazi, Libya. In May 2004, they were sentenced to death by firing squad by the Benghazi Criminal Court and ordered to pay compensation of U.S. $1 million to the family of each child who died from the infection. In December 2005 Libya’s Supreme Court accepted the health professionals’ appeal of the death sentence and ordered a retrial. The retrial, which lasted from May 2006 to November 2006, before the same court as the first trial (the Benghazi Criminal Court) again found the six defendants guilty of knowingly infecting children with the HIV virus and sentenced them to death again. On July 12, 2007, Libya’s Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and death sentence of the six health professionals. On July 17, 2007, the Libyan High Judicial Council commuted their death sentence to life in prison.
The six defendants maintained their innocence from the beginning and pleaded innocent at both of their trials. Their trials violated both international fair trial standards and Libyan domestic law on numerous counts. For example, prominent medical experts Luc Montaignier (a co-discoverer of the HIV virus and director of the Viral Oncology Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris) and Professor Vittorio Colizzi (head of the Laboratory of Immunochemical and Molecular Pathology in the Biology Department of Tor Vergata University in Rome), who were appointed by the Gaddafi Foundation to investigate the cause of the HIV infection—testified at the trial that the evidence used to convict the health professionals was both inadequate and inconsistent. They presented scientific evidence during the trial that reliably demonstrated that the infections resulted, not from ill will, but from negligence and poor hospital hygiene. They also presented scientific evidence showing that some of the infections predated the defendants’ arrival at the hospital and others occurred after they were arrested. The scientists’ evidence, however, was reportedly ignored by the court. During the second trial, scientific evidence was again discarded by the court. A new scientific paper, published in Nature in late 2006, was submitted to the court. It detailed a study led by an international team of researchers from Oxford and Rome. Using the genetic sequences of the viruses from the patients, they reconstructed the mutations that occurred in the virus over time and were able to demonstrate that the HIV strain with which the Libyan children had been infected was present long before the medics arrived in Libya. Regretfully, as occurred at the first trial, the new scientific evidence was not taken into consideration by the court in deciding the verdict of the case.
Another aspect of the trial that contravened international fair trial standards was the court’s decision to allow the prosecution to base its case in large part on so-called “confessions” obtained from three of the defendants—reportedly under severe torture—and used to convict all six of them. Although the health professionals testified in court that they had been tortured and retracted their “confessions” on the grounds that they had been forcibly coerced, the “confessions” were nevertheless entered into evidence at the trial.