Six medical workers in Libya face execution. It is not too late for scientists to speak up on their behalf.
Imagine that five American nurses and a British doctor have been detained and tortured in a Libyan prison since 1999, and that a Libyan prosecutor called at the end of August for their execution by firing squad on trumped-up charges of deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998. Meanwhile, the international community and its leaders sit by, spectators of a farce of a trial, leaving a handful of dedicated volunteer humanitarian lawyers and scientists to try to secure their release.
Implausible? That scenario, with the medics enduring prison conditions reminiscent of the film Midnight Express, is currently playing out in a Tripoli court, except that the nationalities of the medics are different. The nurses are from Bulgaria and the doctor is Palestinian (see page 254).
Despite the medics' plight, the United States agreed in May to re-establish diplomatic relations with Libya, 18 years after the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland that killed 270 civilians. Many observers had expected a resolution of the medics' case to be part of the deal. And the European Union has given Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, red-carpet treatment at the European Commission in Brussels.
International diplomacy, dealing as it does with geopolitical and economic realpolitik, by necessity often involves turning a blind eye. But its lack of progress in response to the medics' case in Libya is an affront to the basic democratic principles that the United States and the European Union espouse. Diplomacy has lamentably failed to deliver.
As our friends at Effect Measure put it:
Nature's senior correspondent Declan Butler is one of the print science journalists who understands the internet and its power. He is now part of an effort to see if it can save six lives.
Lawyers defending six medical workers who risk execution by firing squad in Libya have called for the international scientific community to support a bid to prove the medics' innocence. The six are charged with deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV at the al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in 1998, so far causing the deaths of at least 40 of them. On 28 August, when the prosecution was scheduled to close its case, the Libyan prosecutor called for the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to be sentenced to death. Attorneys from Lawyers Without Borders, who are handling the defence of the six, have responded by calling for the international community to request that the court order an independent scientific assessment, by international AIDS experts, of how the children became infected. The medics were condemned to death in May 2004, but the Supreme Court quashed their convictions last December, following international protests that the first trial had been unfair. It ordered a retrial, which has run intermittently since 11 May at the Criminal Court of Benghazi, based in Tripoli. A verdict is expected within weeks.(Declan Butler, writing in the News section of Nature)
The story goes on to note that so far the scientific community has shown little interest in the case. I expect it's because most of us haven't heard about it. Now, thanks to Declan's story in Nature, accompanied by a very strongly worded Editorial, we have. The question now is whether the scientific blogosphere can help stop this imminent tragedy.
The interface between politics and science (see DarkSyde's posts, or Plutonium Page's) is real and growing. This story needs to be moved beyond the science blogs to the political arena. Only then can publicity and some prssure on your Senators and Reps (remember, this is an election year) possibly help. From Respectful Insolence:
Paul Haviland put it well in the British Medical Journal:
While the "Benghazi Six" languish in a Libyan prison (often deprived of food and water, and some in a worrying state of health), those who should be putting pressure on the Libyan regime are acting with exaggerated caution. The mercurial Colonel Gaddafi is being treated with kid gloves as he seeks to renew friendly ties with the West; "quiet diplomacy" is being urged on the Bulgarian government, for fear of alienating the Libyan authorities (nothing to do with the skyrocketing price of oil, of course); human rights organisations are preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. And those death sentences are under appeal--which, in Libya, seems to be yet another form of judicial limbo.
This article was written two years ago, and in essence, little has changed--except that now the Benghazi Six (a.k.a. the Tripoli Six) face execution. They are still in legal limbo, but their fate will likely be decided, and not for the better, within weeks. If international pressure is to do anything, now is the time to start putting pressure on the President, your Senator, and your Congressional representative. You can also use this link to send a letter to Libyan President Muammar al-Gaddafi and other Libyan officials. You can also contribute to Lawyers Without Borders, which is helping with the defense of the Benghazi Six.
The liberal and conservative blogosphere flex their muscles about issues all the time. Now it's time to see if the medical and scientific blogosphere can rally support to save six health care workers whose only crime was trying to help.
I couldn't agree more, and maybe the political blogosphere can help as well.