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Libya frees 6 jailed medics

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor returned to Bulgaria today after serving eight years each of life sentences for allegedly deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. Libya commuted the six medics' sentences from death to life imprisonment last week after a reported deal to compensate the families of the children, paving the way for final negotiations leading to the release of the group to Bulgaria, where they were pardoned by the country's president. The so-called Tripoli Six case had complicated already shaky diplomatic relations between Libya and the West and become a cause celebre among scientists and bloggers because the medical evidence seemed to exonerate the medics, who insisted they were innocent of the charges but tortured into confessing. (The husband of one of the nurses describes his ordeal here.) Libyan courts convicted and had twice sentenced the six to death for infecting more than 400 children with HIV in 1998 while working at a hospital in Benghazi. In the first trial, in 2003, the court threw out a report it had requested from two prominent HIV researchers, including Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of the virus, who concluded that the infections began occurring before the group started working at the hospital. (A good rundown of the evidence is available here.) The key to the six's release was apparently a face-saving deal for the Libyans in which the Bulgarians agreed to pay a $1 million settlement to each of the families of the infected children. The first death sentence was repealed in late 2005, immediately after a fund was established to compensate the affected families. A 2006 retrial ended in a second death sentence as contributions to the fund dried up. One driving force behind Libya's stand seems to have been the understandable grief of the families, who had originally requested $10 million each. But don't discount good old realpolitik. European diplomats reportedly clinched today's release with a promise of trade ties and aid to strengthen Libya's hospitals and infrastructure.
Libya has long used the six medical workers as bargaining chips and political pawns in its international relations. Right until the final hour of their release, Libya haggled to win further concessions to improve its political and trade ties with the EU.
That's from the blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature who led the way in raising awareness of the case. He includes a comprehensive list of recent stories on the subject. Here's a question for those of you who have followed the case. Despite the medical evidence, diplomacy rather than science carried the day. Granted that we may not know all the messy details of this affair for a while or the motivations of the key figures, how big a role do you think scientists played in pressuring the Libyans to release the medics? Did they do the right thing by speaking out on behalf of human rights and standards of evidence?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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