Libya: Foreign Aid Workers Condemned to Die

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor blamed for deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV in Libya are merely scapegoats, says Susanna Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights. Sirkin blames unsanitary hospital practices for the infections. The foreign health workers have been sentenced to death. Melissa Block talks with Sirkin.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Libya today, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death, again, in a retrial of a case that has drawn international condemnation. The health workers have been jailed in Libya since 1999. They were found guilty of deliberating infecting more than 400 children with HIV. The United States and members of the European Union have called for their release, and human rights groups have, as well.

Susannah Sirkin is deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights. She says the trial had many faults, among them that a number of new scientific findings proving the defendants' innocence were not heard by the court.

Ms. SUSANNAH SIRKIN (Physicians for Human Rights): One, that the strain of the virus, which is an unusual strain that has appeared in these hundreds of children, existed prior, in the hospital prior to the arrival of the nurses. The studies have shown that many of the children were co-infected with the Hepatitis C virus, which is transmitted all too often in hospital settings via unsafe healthcare practices. And the syringes and other medical equipment, unfortunately, had been reused throughout the hospital at the time that the children contracted the virus.

BLOCK: You know, this case is so baffling when you stop to think about it, that these health workers have been in jail for coming up on eight years now. How do you explain this huge divide in what both sides believe?

Ms. SIRKIN: Well, there is a political scenario at play here. There are as many as 400 sick children, several dozen children have died and their families understandably are distraught and enraged. The reason that these children became sick had to do with unsafe healthcare practices within a hospital.

This is not an unusual situation. This is something that we see in many AIDS-burdened countries. The government, rather than be the object of this outrage, has basically scapegoated a group of foreign health workers and accused them of inflicting the children with this virus rather than what everyone knows, really, is bad hygiene.

It's disturbing not only because of the horrible human rights violations that the nurses and doctor have suffered, but also the message it sends about the dishonesty in dealing with health practices that need to be cleaned up.

BLOCK: You mentioned human rights violations, and I understand at least one of the nurses was tortured and confessed under torture.

Ms. SIRKIN: Yes. At least one, and as I understand it, several have stated that they have been tortured and that their confessions were extracted under torture, absolutely. And this is something of great concern in terms of countries around the world that are struggling with the AIDS pandemic. It sends a chilling message to any health workers who might consider going to an AIDS-burdened country to offer their services.

BLOCK: As somebody who's been following this case for a while, do you think that there is a realistic chance that these sentences will not be carried out, or are we now looking at the execution of these six health workers?

Ms. SIRKIN: Well, I think the outcome of this case will depend to a great extent on the responses, in particular the United States and the British governments, as well as the Bulgarian government, and frankly, the public. The fact that they've been sentenced twice now is deeply disturbing, but I'm hopeful that in the appeal process, human rights and the scientific evidence will win out.

BLOCK: Susannah Sirkin is deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights. Ms. Sirkin, thanks very much.

Ms. SIRKIN: You're very welcome.

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