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Seven Years in Libya

by JulyMorning Sun Feb 26th, 2006 at 06:48:12 AM EST

from the diaries. --Jérôme

February marks the 7th anniversary of the ordeal of five Bulgarian nurses, and two doctors, a Bulgarian and a Palestinian. However, the seven years in Libya for the medics have not been an inspiring and purifying experience like that of Brad Pitt in (Seven Years in) Tibet. For the medics, Libya has turned into Seven Years Bad Luck. (Bulgarian medical workers started working in Libya during Communism as part of the party's program for low unemployment. The higher salaries in the African country attracted Bulgarian doctors and this satisfied Libya's need for medical staff from abroad.)

Seven years ago the Libyan police arrested 23 nurses and doctors working at the Benghazi Pediatric Hospital. Seven of the medics (five Bulgarian nurses, and two doctors, a Bulgarian and a Palestinian)were accused of intentionally infecting 426 children and 20 mothers with the HIV virus.

Libyan prosecutors also charged the medics with being part of a conspiracy aiming to undermine the security of the Libyan state. Libyan leader Muammar Quaddafi publicly accused the CIA and Mossad of developing HIV and ordering the medics to infect the Libyan children.

The Libyan prosecution grounded its accusations on the confessions of the Bulgarians, who later renounced them, claiming they were tortured into making false confessions.

Internationally renowned AIDS experts investigated the case and concluded that there was an infection in the hospital before the nurses started working there. However, the court never took into consideration their opinions because two Libyan experts testified that only a deliberate infection could have caused an outbreak to this extent.

Prof. Luc Montagnier, one of the discoverers of the HIV virus, commented:

"We came to the conclusion that the HIV infection can't be injected deliberately by the medical personnel. We found out there was a problem with the hygiene in some sectors of the hospital. Unfortunately, our report was not considered during the second trial, when the nurses were sentenced to death, although it was ordered by the Libyan authorities".

What is troubling, therefore, is the shift of the focus of the trial from human rights and truth-seeking to political decision-making and bargaining.

The Bulgarian government began negotiations with Libya, but to no avail. It rejected the demands of the Libyan families for indemnities and participated in the creation of an International Fund, which aims to provide medical aid to the HIV-infected children. However, in 2005, the government spent only EUR 300,000 for the trial (By comparison, it granted EUR 8 M for a non-combat unit guarding a refugee camp in Iraq.)

The Bulgarian negotiators have taken advantage of the fact that the trial remains a key precondition for Libya's ambitions to improve relations with the European Union and the US. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians mentioned that they might back the writing-off of Libya's debt in exchange for the nurses' freedom.

On May 6, 2004 (an important holiday for the Orthodox Church) the six medics were found guilty of causing the HIV epidemic at the hospital, and were sentenced to death by firing squad (the Bulgarian doctor was acquitted, but is still not allowed to leave Libya).

While the societies of both countries have been actively engaged in the case, the five Bulgarian nurses are on the verge of their physical and psychological strength. Although they signed a joint claim against ten Libyan officers who had tortured them to extract false confessions, (after five adjournments) the officers were acquitted.

So far, the Bulgarians have strong international support, but the Libyans are not afraid to openly demonstrate their tragedy and anger. Libya has offered to spare the lives of the nurses and the Palestinian doctor if the UK hands over the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

On Christmas Day 2005 the Libyan Supreme Cassation Court rescinded the death sentence and demanded a retrial. Its motivation was the procedure violations during the first trial. The prediction is that the retrial, which will take place in the same court that sentenced the medics to death, might start in March or April 2006. But this is one big MIGHT.
This year is DECISIVE for the trial (but this has been claimed for a few years).

(Because it was impossible to find Libyan sources in English, the data is mainly from Bulgarian media. You can find the timeline of the case here.)

Seven years...but how many more?

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Sat Feb 25th, 2006 at 01:59:47 PM EST
well, you know how it is :)

with all those delays, Bulgarians don't even believe the nurses will ever come back home.

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Sat Feb 25th, 2006 at 02:19:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Even if they do, what are these women to expect of their life after Libiya? How are they to put back together the pieces of their ruined life? They are never going to be the same people again, and nobody and nothing will be able to compensate them for these seven years of prison, torture, fear, and humiliation.

This has become one of the biggest failures of Bulgarian diplomacy, but it is also a matter to be considered by the whole international community, because it is something very close to homicide.

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde

by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Sat Feb 25th, 2006 at 02:39:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Their life, as they knew it, is over. Seven years of nightmare - how do you wake up from that?
by Nomad on Sat Feb 25th, 2006 at 04:28:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And very well documented, I might add.

Strangely (or better, sadly), this was brought to my attention only last year, when the trial moved to one of its decisive stages. Only then, the press whipped it up.

I find the Libyan bartering to get their paws on the Lockerbie convict beyond shameless and out of bounds - what in the name has that man to do with the allegations the Bulgarians are trialed for?? Perhaps someone from Libya could comment whether the deal-making streak comes with the culture, but from my point of view it strikes me as completely bizarre.

Keep it up with the postings, I'll be interested to read in follow-ups on this case!

by Nomad on Sat Feb 25th, 2006 at 04:37:55 PM EST
Seven Years in Libiya+humanitarian aid+blood money and nothing yet...

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Sat Feb 25th, 2006 at 05:47:00 PM EST
the problem with "the blood money" is a little bit exaggerated in the Bulgarian media. Besides, we should be careful with how the politicians express their opinion on the record.

I personally dislike the arrogant behaviour of the foreign minister - he hinders rather than help the diplomatic solution.

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Sat Feb 25th, 2006 at 06:21:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I dislike it, too.

I can't stop wondering how for all those years nobody was able to tell us what really is going on and what exactly the international community is doing to help besides talking.

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde

by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Sun Feb 26th, 2006 at 07:28:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
well, i always try to remind myself that they act under the social pressure of the Libyan families. I am sure it is not easy to explain to them that their kids are dying for nothing (55 children have died so far).

Besides, in a Muslim country like Libya, the legislation is based on the Islamic law of Sheriat, according to which "the murderer should be killed."

this is my translation of a quote (found here) by a father of a child infected with HIV in Benghazi:

"We want the death of the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor. They are guilty 100 per cent. The Libyan judiciary is just and honest and nobody stays above the Libyan law. They must be killed. No need for money..."

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA
by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Sun Feb 26th, 2006 at 10:50:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The social pressure from the Libyan families is certainly a factor, but I think this is not the only reason why they are so willing to see the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor dead. Even the leader of Libya Muammar Quaddafi is not inclined to release the prisoners. Of course, one may argue that he is doing so because of this pressure, you are referring to. But my presumption is that he is doing so, simply because he truly believes that they are guilty. His conviction is partly due to the nature of Islam, but it is also connected with the fact that he is a powerful and predominant leader. He is used to maintain a firm hold of all issues-domestic and foreign, and he is so accustomed to this,that he could barely accept another truth, different from his own. Predominant leaders continuously seek ways to confirm their authority and I think, that Muammar Quaddafi definitely fits into this description. He has demonstrated an expansionist leadership style and this indicates that he is not that interested in the opinion of others. Moreover, he has showed no need for affiliation, thus indicating his self-confidence. That is why, I assume that it is not the pressure of families or the role of religion that account for these 7 years. Rather, it is the combination of all these factors. And even more important - it is Muammar Quaddafi,a powerful, predominant leader, who decided not to release the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor.
by hitchhiker on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 03:51:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
His conviction is partly due to the nature of Islam

Pardon me? Want to justify that particular generalisation?

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 05:10:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What I meant by this is related to the comment of July Morning about "the Islamic law of Sheriat" and the claim that "the murderer should be killed". Probably, I have not used the correct word in this particular case. It is not the nature of Islam, but rather the strict principles and laws, on which Islam dwells. Thus, as a Muslim, Muammar Quaddafi has adopted these rules and laws and they consequently, influence his decisions.
by hitchhiker on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 05:48:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Don't forget that he may have

demonstrated an expansionist leadership style and this indicates that he is not that interested in the opinion of others

but Quaddafi needs the international community so much right now that he cannot afford to be a stubborn king.

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 06:32:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't see anything wrong with Islam concerning this issue, besides the strict laws/convictions for criminals (but that is not a bad thing).

May be what you want to refer to is the so-called "conspiracy thinking" - don't tell me you mistake Islam for a religion that creates crazy fundamentalists and lunatics who believe in conspiracy?

And why do you think he TRULY BELIEVES that they are guilty?

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 06:29:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I do not claim that Islam is the religion that creates "crazy fundamentalists and lunatics". That was not my point. Rather, I claim that with a leader as Muammar Quaddafi - powerful and dominant - these strict laws and principles will be readily used against the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor.
by hitchhiker on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 04:22:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ok, i agree with that.

I was just trying to be nice to Quaddafi and not accuse him without being absolutely sure of his incentives.

I know that what you are arguing is what is seen in the public sphere, but I still no not like assuming things about political leaders only because most of the people say they are true.

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 07:08:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I respect your efforts to create a complete picture before you start accusing someone of something. Actually, I am trying to do the same.So, obviously, we just see things from different angles, different perspectives and thus, we form different opinions!
by hitchhiker on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 08:08:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually I think that the position of the Bulgarian government have so far been balanced and careful. Having in mind what is at stake, I don't think the Bulgarian diplomats have any options for being bolder. The situation is further strained by the fact that it is not entirely clear how "independent" is the Libyan justice system and what exactly is Gaddafi's vision about the case. It feels like he is happy to have international attention on his country for whatever reason. Also, eventual amnesty for the nurses is highly unlikely because it would be extremely unpopular for the Libyan leader at home. He suspended the Libyan chemical weapons program relatively recently, allegedly because he felt threatened after he saw what happened in Iraq, so now he certainly would want to help his softening image.

Sadly, seven years of bad luck for the Bulgarian nurses in Libya is really what is happening.

by lukewarm on Sun Feb 26th, 2006 at 04:23:54 PM EST
This is a very sad story. One of the nurses is a mother to a student from my high school in Sliven. I cannot imagine what the relatives of these people are going through..

I personally think that the US and the EU should have waited for some resolution of the case before lifting their embargoes.

And isn't it ridiculous that Libya was in the UN Commission on Human Rights from 2001 to 2003?!

-- Fighting my own apathy..

by Naneva (mnaneva at gmail dot com) on Sun Feb 26th, 2006 at 05:45:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I personally do not see a way out of the problem. It is sort of a Catch-22 situation. Whatever happens, there will be bad consequences for one of the sides. Somebody will have to pay. I just don't want that to be the nurses for they've suffered enough already.

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Sun Feb 26th, 2006 at 04:28:28 PM EST
Ah good thing we have the European Union to apply blunt pressure on 2-bits dictators, isn't it?</snark>

Libya is the rather rare case where pulling a gun and not yielding an inch is the only effective form of diplomacy, for Quaddafi is a gangland-style goon and, to our interests, a useless goon at that. We have no reason to help him stick around, certainly not principled nor even pragmatic.

by Francois in Paris on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 10:48:48 AM EST

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