Medical Team Accused of Giving Libyan Children HIV

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor stand accused of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS. All six defendants deny the charges, but face possible death sentences if convicted. Rana Jawad of the BBC talks with Madeleine Brand about the trial.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand with news of a bizarre trial in Libya.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor face execution there. They're accused of infecting hundreds of children with HIV in a Libyan hospital back in 1999. About 50 of the children have since died. Nearly 400 of them are now being treated in European hospitals.

This is the defendants' second trial. The defense ended its arguments yesterday and the BBC's Rana Jawad is reporting from the trial. She joins me now.

Rana, these five nurses and doctor have been imprisoned in Libya for the past seven years. What do prosecutors say they did?

Ms. RANA JAWAD (BBC Correspondent): The case against them is that they intentionally infected more than 400 children with HIV in the Libyan coastal town of Benghazi. This is Libya's second largest city.

Now in terms of explanations as to why they did it, initially the claims were that Western intelligence agencies were behind it to undermine the Libyan states. This was back in 1999. We have to remember that that was a very bad time for Libya and relations with the West were very poor, unlike today, where they've mended relations with the West.

So at that time there was a lot of rhetoric as to foreign intelligence agencies being involved. Today, that's died down. Their argument is simply that they did it and they have the proof to back it up.

BRAND: And since they've dispensed with the motive of foreign intelligence agencies, what is the motive?

Ms. JAWAD: I think this is one of the main sticking points in the case. If there's one thing that stands out is that the prosecution did not establish a motive, and this is something that the defense pointed out in their closing arguments yesterday.

What they have is confessions from some of the nurses. The foreign medics later claimed that they were sexually abused and tortured into giving the false confessions. And that's basically it. They've got the confessions and they're adamant that the nurses did it, and the Palestinian doctor.

BRAND: Rana, I understand the defense is arguing that the fault lies with the Libyan healthcare system, that it was poor conditions, unsanitary conditions that led to the children being infected with HIV.

Ms. JAWAD: Indeed, most of their argument was concentrating on the state of the healthcare system. And if you do look at the healthcare system here, it's quite poor. And most Libyans, they don't trust their healthcare system. And a lot of hospitals were, especially in the past, in the late 1990s, known to practice multiple usage of syringes, et cetera, which experts in the first trial of this case testified to.

Even a former health minister in Benghazi said that there were 1,500 HIV cases in Benghazi all together before this incident happened, so essentially it wasn't anything new. The prosecution initially had claimed that they never had HIV in that city before the nurses came.

BRAND: The first trial ended in conviction for these six people. That conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered. What's the prognosis for this trial? What do experts believe is going to happen?

Ms. JAWAD: It's quite difficult to know what's going to happen at this stage. Anything could happen. However, having talked to lawyers on both sides - the defense lawyer, for one, said that if they were to be found guilty again, they would once again appeal to the supreme court. They have a right to do so. And if they're found not guilty, obviously the Libyan government is going to be left with 500 very angry families of children, and they're going to have to deal with it in one way or another.

BRAND: That's the BBC's Rana Jawad joining us from Tripoli, Libya. Rana, thank you.

Ms. JAWAD: Thank you.

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