A Travesty in Libya

Sunday, October 29, 2006

IN AN attempt to shed his rogue status, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has foresworn weapons of mass destruction and agreed to compensate the families of those who died in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. But on Tuesday a trial reopens that could again tarnish Libya's image. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor are accused of intentionally injecting the AIDS virus into more than 400 Libyan children. The accusations are an attempt to deflect Libyans' attention from the shocking state of their own medical system. The evidence against the six foreigners is flimsy, but they could face a firing squad.

The infections occurred at a children's hospital eight years ago in Benghazi, a city in Libya's northeast. When the outbreak was discovered, a local magazine suggested that the infections reflected poor standards of hospital hygiene: Children were often treated with unscreened blood products, and equipment was not always cleaned before reuse. But Libyan authorities seized the foreign health workers at the hospital and tortured them until they confessed to malpractice. The foreigners were convicted and sentenced to be executed. But Libya's Supreme Court ordered a retrial following foreign protests.

The prosecution's case in the new trial is built on a report by five Libyan physicians. The British science journal, Nature, obtained this report and showed it to Western medical experts, who determined that it contained no real evidence. Meanwhile, the Libyan court has refused to admit as evidence an investigation done by two prominent European AIDS experts. The Europeans concluded that the infections had begun before the foreign health workers had even arrived in Benghazi. They also noted that many of the children were infected with hepatitis B and C, evidence consistent with the theory that the HIV was spread by poor hospital hygiene.

The European Commission and the United States have called for the release of the health workers. If Libya nonetheless goes ahead with this travesty of justice, it will be saying that it prefers to scapegoat foreigners rather than admit to the weakness of its own medical system. The first victims will be the health workers. But they will be followed by the Libyans themselves, who need a government with the honesty to confront the true causes of HIV infections.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company