U.S., Europe Criticize Death Sentence for Medical Workers Accused of Infecting Libyan Children With HIV
The U.S. and Europe yesterday criticized a ruling in a Libyan court that five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor should be executed for allegedly intentionally infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, the Washington Post reports (Anderson, Washington Post, 12/20). The six medical workers in May 2004 were sentenced to death by firing squad for allegedly infecting 426 children through contaminated blood products at Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, Libya. They also were ordered to pay a total of $1 million to the families of the HIV-positive children. The Libyan Supreme Court in December 2005 overturned the medical workers' convictions and ordered a retrial in a lower court. The health workers say they are innocent of the charges, claiming that they were forced to confess and that they were tortured by Libyan officials during interrogations. At the retrial, the prosecution reiterated its call for the health workers to be executed. New genetic evidence published earlier in the month in the journal Nature found that the HIV outbreak at the hospital began up to three years before the medical workers arrived at the facility. The evidence also showed that the children were infected with a strain of HIV that is common in West Africa. According to the study's researchers, many Libyan immigrants come from the region. The evidence suggests that the HIV-positive children were exposed to the virus because of insufficient infection control at the hospital, which likely involved improper equipment sterilization before injections. The presiding judge did not say how the death sentence would be carried out (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/19). According to the Post, the sentence "drew immediate strong condemnation from Washington, European capitals and medical groups." The health care workers "deserve to go home, and we are very disappointed at the outcome of this verdict," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said (Washington Post, 12/20). "We are going to urge the Libyan political leadership to engage in the process," Ivaylo Kalfin, Bulgaria's foreign minister, said during a meeting with Rice (Smith, New York Times, 12/20).
Wall Street Journal: The death sentence for the health workers shows that "terrorism inside [Libya] continues," despite the fact that the country was "able to restore trade and diplomatic ties with the U.S.," a Journal editorial says. "Now might be a good time to remind [Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi] that the terms of his rehabilitation are revocable" (Wall Street Journal, 12/20).
Washington Post: "Since the first cases of AIDS were diagnosed in the 1980s, a cocktail of social prejudices and taboos has served to frustrate action," a Post editorial says, adding, "Yesterday's verdict from a Libyan court provides a shocking example of this practice." According to the editorial, "Rather than admitting to the weakness of the hospital system, Libyan authorities moved to shift the blame." The editorial concludes, "The verdict will now be appealed to Libya's supreme court. We hope it will reach a verdict consistent with the evidence" (Washington Post, 12/20).
PRI's "The World" -- a production of BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston -- on Tuesday reported on the case. The segment includes comments from the husband of one of the nurses, relatives of the HIV-positive children and protestors (Brunwasser, "The World," PRI, 12/19). Audio of the segment is available online. This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.