Another Perspective

No Good Deed

Five Bulgarian nurses face a Libyan firing squad.

By 4.5.05

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I have before me two photocopies. One a Feb. 2004 White House Press Release titled "Steps Taken in U.S.-Libya Relations," the other a story from the March 26, 2005, French newspaper Le Monde titled "Tripoli's Prisoners."

The first tells of a Libya rewarded for taking "significant steps in implementing its commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs." After 23 years of sanctions, Americans are now free to travel to Libya. Would-be tourists, however, may want to read the second document first. It is the story of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death for injecting 426 Libyan children with the HIV virus. Fifty of the infected children have died thus far. The death sentences were handed down in May 2004. The medics, who have been languishing in a Libyan jail since February of 1999, are sentenced to die by firing squad, the traditional soldier's death.

Two of the Bulgarian nurses, Nasya Nenova (at 38 the youngest) and Christiana Valcheva, allegedly confessed to the crime. According to their lawyer, Vladimir Sheitanov, the nurses were held at a canine training center where they were "undressed, tied by their feet and wrists and then beaten. They were also tortured with electric shocks, and they lived in a permanent fear of sexual harassment. They were threatened that their children would be tortured if they didn't confess." Eventually ten guards were charged with torturing the medics, but their trial has been repeatedly postponed.

When the outbreak was first detected in early 1999, it was immediately blamed on foreigners working at the Benghazi pediatric hospital, the Bulgarian nurses, in particular. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi himself accused the medics of being agents of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad sent in to destabilize his regime. Qaddafi has since softened his rhetoric, and now says the medics were conducting illegal experiments with HIV-contaminated blood. He recently told reporters at an Arab League Summit in Algiers that he would never free the "murderers of children." The medics' lawyer has since appealed the death sentence. A decision on the appeal is expected by May 31.

TO THE NON-ARAB WORLD, the cause of the outbreak seems obvious. Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of the HIV virus, has twice investigated the outbreak and twice concluded that the infection began up to four years before the arrival of the Bulgarians, probably after the 1997 hospitalization of a child from sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Montagnier and several of his colleagues, including experts from the World Health Organization, have repeatedly insisted that the infection was spread through the reuse of disposable syringes.

Everyone seems to have his own explanation why the Libyans are pressing forward with the death sentences. Some say Libya wants the Bulgarian government to forgive its massive debt. Libya has asked Sofia for compensation, $10 million for each infected child, which coincidentally is what Libya paid to each of the families of the 270 mostly American victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. A Libyan, Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, was convicted of the terrorist bombing. Following the outcome of that trial Libya's foreign ministry spokesman Hassouna Chaouch dismissed the verdict as "a serious affront and a clear condemnation of the Scottish judiciary." Chaouch declared that "Libya reiterates to the whole world that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi is the Jesus Christ of the modern time." Al-Megrahi was sentenced to 20 years and is serving his sentence in Scotland.

Still others see the death sentences as payback for Bulgaria's part in the "Coalition of the Willing." Bulgaria currently has 450 troops in Iraq, which it plans to withdraw by the end of the year. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the London Times reported that Saddam Hussein and Col. Qaddafi had reached a deal that would give Hussein's family asylum in Libya should the Iraqi leader lose power.

And there are more demands: free hospitalization for the infected children in European hospitals, and construction of a specialized hospital in Benghazi. Sofia has refused the demands saying it would amount to an admission of the medics' guilt.

The Union of Libyan Human Rights Defenders spokesman Mohamed Kasim told the Christian Science Monitor that Libyan "public anger about the children and poor medical services in general means someone needs to be held responsible," and "foreign culprits make the most convenient scapegoat."

RECENTLY, THE LIBYAN GOVERNMENT blocked a scheduled visit by a Human Rights Watch research team. The team was scheduled to conduct a three-week fact-finding visit. Included on the itinerary was a visit with the Bulgarian medics.

Paul Haviland, of the Bulgarian Medics Solidarity Project, has his own theory why the U.S. now has begun normalizing relations with Tripoli. To no one's surprise it involves oil. Vast amounts of oil and gas remain to be exploited in the Libyan desert, he says, and everyone stands to gain economically -- Libya, the U.S. and Italy in particular. Haviland's advice for the Bulgarian government: "Start drilling for oil!"

Late last month about 60 relatives of the infected children protested outside the Libyan court as the death sentences were appealed. Some carried banners that read "Death to the Child Killers." A few of the infected children joined the protesters. Most were dressed in army fatigues and carried mock pistols, Agence France-Presse reported.

Since assuming power in a 1969 military coup, Col. Qaddafi, self-proclaimed "Leader of the World Revolution," has sponsored numerous terrorist organizations that share his delight in sticking it to the West. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's 2002 report, the Lockerbie explosion was just the culmination of Libya's prolonged engagement in international terrorism. "But a decade of multilateral sanctions and international ostracism seems to have made an impression on the militant revolutionary, and he has gradually begun to abandon terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. Qaddafi expelled the notorious Abu Nidal group from Libyan territory in 1999, severed ties with radical Palestinian groups, and closed the once notorious terrorist training camps. Unlike many of his counterparts, the Libyan strongman viewed September 11 as an opportunity to refurbish his image and possibly even reconstitute Libya's relations with the United States."

For the first time in decades Westerners are free to travel to Libya. And Libya, as always, is free to keep them there.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.