In the "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" category
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Mar. 24th, 2006 | 09:31 pm
Moammar Khadafy considers changing his name to Idi Amin.
Bulgarians sentenced to death in bizarre Libyan HIV case
Like the plot line of a cheesy Cold War spy novel, the lives of five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor -- accused and convicted in a diabolically farcical five-year trial of intentionally infecting over 400 children with HIV as part of a CIA and Israeli intelligence plot -- now depend on the whims of Moammar Khadafy, Libya's viciously mercurial dictator with a passion for fashion.
With the plot hitting its climactic point, politicians and diplomats around the globe are vocalizing their ideas on how the story should end.
On May 6, the six defendants were sentenced to death by firing squad -- with a 60-day period to launch an appeal -- in a trial observers say flew in the face of human rights in every respect. Nine Libyan health workers also charged in the case were acquitted the same day.
Residents in the Libyan town of Banghazi celebrated in the streets with dance and song; in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, outrage and disbelief were channeled into candle light vigils and prayer ceremonies.
"It's like your worst nightmare or a bad movie, only this is real, and all you want to do is cry," said Sofia resident Diana Meneva, who joined the medics' family members and hundreds of concerned Bulgarians at a peaceful protest outside the parliament building last month.
The medical professionals dreamed of better lives. For the Bulgarians, hailing from a small Balkan nation where the average monthly salary is a paltry $165, and the Palestinian coming from an area where unemployment is estimated to be above 60 percent, the chance to work in Libya was a boon -- they would earn a salary more than triple what they could get at home.
With visions of bright future prospects in their heads, the five Bulgarian nurses (Kristiana Malinova Valcheva, Nasya Stojcheva Nenova, Valentina Manolova Siropulo, Valya Georgieva Chervenyashka and Snezhanka Ivanova Dimitrova) and Palestinian Dr. Ashraf Ahmad Jum'a arrived in Banghazi in 1998 to work at the al-Fateh Children's Hospital.
Less than a year later, in February 1999, the medics were arrested without warning along with dozens of foreign medical workers after 393 children at al-Fateh were found to have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. All but the six now facing death were released.
Nurse Valcheva's husband, Dr. Zdravko Georgiev, employed in another Libyan city by a South Korean company, raced to be by his wife's side, only to find himself arrested and charged as a co-conspirator. After more than four years in jail, Georgiev was released for "time served" on May 6 -- the day his wife received the death sentence.
"Libya has severe deficiencies in their medical system including a lack of qualified personnel and for years has recruited foreigners," said Bulgarian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Lubomir Ivanov. "It appears these medics were selected for trial in the belief that Bulgaria is a small country incapable of defending its citizens."
Investigations into the case by Amnesty International found that in the first nine months of their incarceration, the medics were allowed access to embassy representatives only three times.
"Not all of the defendants were present at the first two meetings. For example, Nasya Stojcheva Nenova and Valya Georgieva Chervenyashka were not brought to the meeting on 25 February 1999, apparently because they exhibited scars of torture which they had undergone," said a 2004 Amnesty International report. "The Bulgarian defendants told Amnesty International delegates that those torturing them instructed them not to mention their treatment to their diplomatic representatives."
The defendants were tortured daily for the first three months of their captivity in efforts to elicit confessions -- torture that included electric shocks, being threatened by barking dogs, falaqa (beatings on the sole of the feet), suspension above the ground by their arms for hours on end, and in the case of two nurses, rape.
Interrogators had to do three takes of the video confession of the Palestinian doctor Jum'a, with beatings in between and after. When called upon by the public prosecutor to repeat his confession in person -- interrogators beat him again in the offices of the legal representative.
The medics gained access to a Libyan lawyer for the first time in February 2000, after their trial had already opened before the Peoples' Libyan Court.
Khadafy alleged that the medics were part of a CIA-Mossad plot to test out the effects of using HIV/AIDS as a weapon to destroy other countries.
Two years later, after numerous delays, their case was shifted to the Criminal Prosecution Service, where the foreigners launched complaints of torture before the new prosecutors. After examinations by a Libyan doctor, nine Libyan security personnel were brought up on charges and set to be tried alongside the medics.
"The court subsequently claimed it did not have jurisdiction to pass judgment on the torture allegations, yet they did have competency to try a case the basis for which was the confessions allegedly taken under that same torture? There is a complete lack of logic there," argued the Bulgarian deputy minister, Ivanov.
In another critical blow to the defense, the prosecutor instructed the judges' panel to ignore the September 2003 testimony of a French doctor, Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of HIV. Montagnier visited al-Fateh hospital and co- authored an exhaustive report with Italian AIDS researcher Vittorio Colizzi on the cause of the infections, which according to the report began in 1997 -- a full year before any of the accused arrived in Libya.
Their conclusion? The infections were an inevitable outcome of inadequate equipment, unskilled staff and the reuse of unsterilized needles.
"This tragedy is probably due to negligence," Montagnier testified. "This can happen not only in this hospital, but in many others, particularly pediatric hospitals, because children are more vulnerable to infection, even by very small quantities of blood."
More than two dozen of the children have since contracted AIDS and died.
For years Khadafy enjoyed taunting the West and reveled in its impotent scorn, but the court's decision comes at a time when the North African leader is on a extensive public relations campaign to change his international image.
In September, Bulgaria and Great Britain led a successful campaign at the United Nations Security Council to remove sanctions against Libya -- which currently holds stewardship of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
In December, Libya announced its desire to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction program and has since turned over planeloads of equipment to the United States. Khadafy also agreed to pay compensation to victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and the 1989 bombing of a French airliner of the Niger desert, both carried out by Libyan agents.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House spokesman Richard Boucher have joined a chorus of European politicians urging Libya to review the trial carefully and answer charges of human rights abuse in the case.
Libya has suggested that the Americans look into their own human rights record in light of events at the Abu Graib prison in Iraq before instructing others on how to behave.
Yet despite the acrimonious exchanges, Bulgarian officials -- who have launched an appeal against the death sentences in the Libyan courts and called for help from other democratic nations -- believe Khadafy has yet to issue his final word on the subject.
"It's always difficult to predict what comes next in a country like Libya, " says Ivanov. "Pressure needs to be brought to bear because Khadafy is certainly trying to improve his image -- but this is sickening, it's playing with the lives of six innocent people."