Protesters in Malta demonstrate in support of the five medics jailed in Libya.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Despite Verdict, Stalemate Continues for Libyan Prisoners

Five foreign medics jailed in Libya since 1999 have been plunged back into limbo. Although a legal ruling has spared them from execution, they still face life sentences, and it is unclear when, or if, they will be sent home.

The medics, four Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical intern, were working in a children's hospital in Benghazi, Libya, in 1998 when an HIV outbreak was discovered. Four hundred twenty-six children were found to be infected--although the Libyans have recently increased the number to 483--and more than 50 so far have died of AIDS-related illnesses. The Libyan police arrested the foreign medics, accusing them of deliberately infecting the children as part of a conspiracy. Despite several independent investigations that proved that the outbreak began long before the accused medics arrived in Libya--and that the most likely cause was unsanitary conditions at the hospital--a court dismissed the scientific evidence (ScienceNOW, 19 December 2006). According to medics and doctors who have examined the detainees, the Libyan police tortured them into confessing.

Behind the scenes, diplomatic negotiations have been intense. According to Libyan law, the charges brought by the families of the infected children can be dropped in exchange for "blood money." Libya's starting bid was $10 million per family. A spokesperson for the children's families announced last week that $1 million per family had been agreed upon. Who is paying remains unclear, but the money may come partly from a fund set up by the European Union, the United States, and Libya for care of the infected children. The money seemed to have paved the road for the release of the medics to Bulgaria.

As was widely expected, Libya's highest court upheld the death sentences on 11 July. Five days later, Libya's Supreme Judiciary Council--which has the final say in all legal matters--met to decide their fate. The Council postponed its decision after the families complained that their blood money had not yet appeared in a Libyan bank account. The next day, the Council announced that the medics would not be executed; instead, the punishment has been commuted to life imprisonment.

Some politicians involved in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering are putting on a brave face. It is a "positive step forward," says David Welch, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. "We are encouraged ... and we hope [the decision] will result in a way to let the medics return home." But many observers worry that Libya will keep the medics at least another year to bargain for the release of a Libyan jailed in the U.K. for his alleged involvement in the 1988 bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland.

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