Nobel Winners Decry Libyan AIDS Trial

A letter from 114 Nobel laureates to Libya's leader calls defendants in a contentious murder trial scapegoats. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor are accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS. Nobel Laureate Richard Roberts discusses the case with Lynn Neary.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

A remarkable murder trial ended earlier this morning in Libya. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor stand accused of deliberately injecting more than 400 Libyan children with the AIDS virus. All of the defendants worked in a Libyan hospital. Their lawyers say the children actually became infected through unsanitary medical practices, but Libyan authorities decided to blame the foreign health workers. The judge presiding in the case said today that he will announce a verdict on December 19th. The case is attracting international attention from scientists and public health experts who say the defendants are scapegoats.

This week, the journal Nature published an open letter on the case addressed to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi from 114 Nobel prize winners. Joining me now is Nobel Laureate Richard Roberts, who delivered the letter to Libya's U.N. ambassador, Atia Mubarak(ph). Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RICHARD ROBERTS (Nobel Laureate): It's a pleasure to be here.

NEARY: Can you tell me what happened in your meeting with the ambassador?

Mr. ROBERTS: Yes. I went down and spent actually about an hour, a little over an hour and a half with the ambassador. He was very polite. You know, because he is the ambassador to the U.N., obviously he had to be very diplomatic about everything. I think he does not report directly to Colonel Gaddafi. Rather he reports back to his foreign ministry. But I am optimistic at this point that it will have an effect.

NEARY: Now, obviously there's a great deal of concern about the six health workers, but there are other issues here as well. Do you feel that this case is going to make international aid workers less willing to go into Libya and other countries?

Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I think this is clearly the problem. If you just look Libya itself, you know, if you belong to an NGO who was trying to help there and you saw what had happened to these poor individuals, I think you certainly would think twice about going there and trying to help them out. And of course, people in this situation who are looking into other countries, thinking about going to other countries to help, might also give pause before they agree to go and do things. So yes, there are some broader implications.

NEARY: And we should mention that these six health workers have already spent a great deal of time in prison.

Mr. ROBERTS: They've been in prison for seven years. Originally, when they were first arrested, they were tortured until they confessed, particularly gruesome kinds of torture, from what I hear. But I've not spoken to them directly, of course.

NEARY: Well, I know you've complained that the Libyan court ignored evidence from scientific experts on how the children got infected with HIV.

Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah. During the earlier parts of the trial, Libya had actually requested a report from some international experts to look into the matter. It exonerated the Bulgarian workers as having done anything deliberately, and it basically said that the practices of hygiene within the hospital were such that syringes were being reused, and there was just not the proper standards of care that one would expect in, say, a Western hospital and that this almost certainly contributed to - if was not the major cause - of these infections, and that it was not something certainly that was done deliberately by the health workers.

NEARY: Now, this is the second trial for these health workers. They were found guilty in an earlier trial and sentenced to death.

Mr. ROBERTS: Yes.

NEARY: That was overturned by the Libyan Supreme Court, that decision. A new trial was ordered. What happens if in this second trial the outcome is the same?

Mr. ROBERTS: Within a couple of weeks of the final verdict being issued, they will be shot to death.

NEARY: And there's no recourse to that? There's...

Mr. ROBERTS: Apparently - I am told that there is no recourse. Of course, you know, I'm not an expert in the Libyan justice system, but I'm told that there is no recourse. But on the other hand, Mr. Gaddafi - or the government, at least - could decide to commute the sentence or to deal with it in some other way, in much the way that any other president of a country is able to commute sentences. In recent times, Libya has given at least the impression they're trying to behave much better and trying to join the world community and, you know, having gotten the Lockerbie incident out of the way, they do seem to be trying to do a lot better.

NEARY: Richard Roberts received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1993. He is now chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts. And he joined us from his office in Ipswich. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ROBERTS: It's a pleasure.

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