Newly restored Libyan-Western relations come under pressure as six foreign medics receive death sentences, writes Gamal Nkrumah
On Thursday 7 May, the Benghazi Criminal Court sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death by firing squad. Prosecutors demanded the death penalty, claiming that the defendants had deliberately infected 450 Libyan children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in a deadly experiment to find a cure for the disease.
To the chagrin of Western powers the verdict was triumphantly welcomed in Libya, especially by the families of the victims, who felt vindicated. Libyan officials were tight-lipped over the matter. "It is up to the courts to decide," a Libyan diplomat explained.
Bringing to a close an ugly five-year court case whose proceedings have held the Libyan public spellbound, the court's ruling shocked and outraged the international community. And although the fissure over the verdict has been deep and corrosive, it is just one among several rifts that have already begun to scar Libya's budding friendship with Western powers.
International criticism of the verdict was received with indignation in Libya. Protesters took to the streets in the Mediterranean port of Benghazi, the country's second largest city. Benghazi has long been seen as a hotbed of Islamist opposition to the Libyan regime. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is especially careful not to offend its restive population. Protesters burnt the US flag in front of the Italian consulate and waved pictures of Libyan children dying of AIDS and of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. The US has no moral authority to talk about human rights, they shouted. "The verdict is fair. What they did is a crime against humanity," a relative of a HIV/AIDS-infected child said.
Indeed, the entire region of Cyrenaica is fraught with tensions. Public opinion in Benghazi, the economic hub of the area, is firmly pitted against Western interference in Libyan judicial procedures and is demanding that the sentence be carried out. Protestations from the West that the defendants were innocent were dismissed, in particular those from the United States. "The US has no right to speak of human rights. Before voicing an opinion on the Benghazi verdict, the US would have done better to apologise for Abu Ghraib," Libyan government spokesman, Hassouna Al-Shawesh, told reporters in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, Abdel-Rahman Shalgam, the Libyan foreign minister, explained that his government could not overrule the independent judiciary.
Human rights activists disagree. "This is not true. There is no independent judiciary in Libya. The judiciary is controlled by the executive, and the judges do what they are told to do," Guma Al-Gamaty, founder of the London- based Libyan Human and Political Development Forum, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The verdict was a calculated political decision. It was designed to prevent a backlash from the population at large."
Al-Gamaty predicted that the verdict would eventually be overturned by a presidential pardon. "I expect a pardon from Gaddafi himself in due course. That way Gaddafi wins on both fronts," he said.
For now, Libya is vehemently opposed to a Bulgarian request for an independent international assessment. But Libya agreed to allow international observers, including an official from the US State Department, to monitor the trial and witness last Thursday's hearings.
"It does cast a shadow over a relationship which we hoped was getting better," European Union External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said. United States State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher called the verdict "unacceptable", "wrong and unjust".
In addition, the alleged sexual molestation and torture of the Bulgarian defendants while in prison have incensed Bulgarian public opinion. "I'm shocked by the verdict," said Bulgarian Justice Minister Anton Stankov. "We're not going to accept it," he said. "We don't need Libya's mercy."
Bulgarian President Georgi Porvanov, shot at last month as he visited his country's 450-strong light infantry battalion stationed in the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq, was more reconciliatory. For now, Bulgarian officials are hoping that the Libyan leader will overturn the verdict and pardon the defendants.
Many Bulgarian professionals work in Libya's health, manufacturing and infrastructural development sectors. But Bulgaria has had a spate of bad publicity in the Libyan and Arab press. The new NATO member state is staunchly pro- American. Six Bulgarians have so far been killed in action in Iraq. Still, the Bulgarians want to maintain good working relations with oil-rich Arab countries like Libya.
The trial is widely regarded in Europe as a litmus test for Libya's progress on human rights and the verdict was deeply embarrassing to the EU officials who only last month welcomed Gaddafi in Brussels.
Moreover, the trail has led development professionals to question the state of Libya's health service. "Libya is an oil-rich nation, with the highest per capita income in the African continent. Why is its health service so run- down?" asked Al-Gamaty. "The oil wealth [is] used to prop up the regime's vast security apparatus. Corruption and nepotism are rife. The regime creamed off the oil wealth instead of spending the money of health, housing, education and social welfare," Al-Gamaty told the Weekly.
Al-Gamaty is altogether sceptical of Gaddafi's claims to improve Libya's human rights record. "The regime has a different agenda. It used the country's oil wealth to support terrorist groups around the world, including Italy's Red Brigade, Germany's Bader Meinhoff, the Irish Republican Army, Japan's Red Army and many different groups in Africa. It is estimated that $25 billion was spent by the regime over the period to support terrorist organisations," he added.
Al-Gamaty's objections are supported by Luc Montagnier, the French physician accredited with discovering the HIV virus. Montagnier authored a report in which he said that the infection had already spread among Benghazi's children before those accused started working at the Al- Fateh hospital, and continued to spread after they were arrested.
Montangnier put the spread of HIV/AIDS among the children of Benghazi down to the poor hygienic conditions in Libya's state-run hospitals. He cited the reuse of syringes in the hospital as evidence of negligence and poor hygiene. "Children are more vulnerable to infection, even by very small quantities of blood," he said.
Some observers believe that the high-profile trial and the verdict were part of a plan to detract attention from the political rumblings fomenting in Cyrenaica. Gaddafi wants to placate the people of the restive oil-rich region because he fears serious political conflagration there. Those sentenced to death are "hostages of Libya's political games", protested a cousin of one of the defendants, Valya Cherenyashka.
Another Bulgarian national, Dr Zdravko Georgiev, initially reported to have received a death penalty, got away instead with a four-year sentence which he has already served due to the length of investigations and hearings. Nine Libyan nationals, mostly hospital staff, were acquitted.