From Libya, a chilling tale of nurses in danger

October 21, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Five Bulgarian nurses (and a Palestinian doctor) face death sentences in Libya, accused of deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with the AIDS virus. Libya's supreme court is set to hear their final appeal Nov. 15; they could face a firing squad if the appeal is rejected. They have already spent seven years in prison.

This story exemplifies the tendency in the Arab world to hatch wild conspiracy theories to explain difficult problems. The tendency is hardly unique to Arab societies, but they produce more elaborate theories more often than any other society I've encountered.

Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el Kadafi negotiated a deal with the United States and our European allies to end his nuclear weapons program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions and Libya's pariah status. But the nurses' plight suggests Libya isn't ready to be welcomed back into the international community.

The nurses are clearly not guilty. They traveled to Libya in the 1990s to find work at a time when the Bulgarian economy was in tatters. In 1999, an AIDS epidemic infected about 420 Libyan children, and the Libyans conveniently arrested the foreign medical workers. The women were tortured in an effort to extract confessions.

International AIDS experts and a World Health Organization team that visited Libya concluded the AIDS virus was being spread by unsanitary hospital practices. The experts included Luc Montagnier, the doctor who discovered the AIDS virus, and who was invited to Libya by Colonel Kadhafi's son, Seif El-Islam (a more modern man than his father). Dr. Montagnier found some of the children were infected before the nurses even arrived.

So why were the nurses charged? Clearly, Libyan officials were trying to deflect public outrage over the infecting of children.

To further rouse Libyans' wrath against the foreign medical workers, the indictment charged them with working for the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service. That charge has been dropped. Perhaps it became an embarrassment after Libya concluded its deal with the Bush administration. But the charge probably still resonates with Arab audiences who believe Israeli agents carried out the World Trade Center bombings.

The European Commission has protested the nurses' case, and President Bush made a strong statement when he met Monday with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. "The position of the United States government is the nurses ought to be freed. We have made our position known to the Libyan government," Mr. Bush said.

Are such protests strong enough to save the nurses when Libya's oil fields beckon Western investors?

I asked Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin in a telephone interview what he thought must be done.

"We appreciate the U.S. interest. ... . I'm sure they [the Bush administration] will follow the case closely," he said.

"This case is not helping at all Libya's relations with the rest of the world. This case should be settled in a positive way," Mr. Kalfin said.

What won't work, the minister insisted, is Libya's suggestion that Bulgaria pay blood money to the families of the children, which could lead to the dismissal of the case under Islamic law.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," Mr. Kalfin said. "You pay blood money if you are guilty." He said the tragedy that has befallen the children must be separated from the trial of the nurses.

Toward this end, the European Union has set up a plan to help treat Libyan AIDS victims, in which Bulgaria is participating. "The idea is to create the capacity in Libya to cure the children," Mr. Kalfin says. "We really are concerned with the tragedy of the Libyan children. But this is a humanitarian issue. The issue of the nurses is a question of justice and human rights."

No question about that. How can Western nations do business with a country in which foreign visitors risk execution based on conspiracy theories that defy facts and international norms?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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