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Scapegoat case tests Libya's 'reform'

NEARLY EVERYONE agrees that the war against Iraq has had one beneficial outcome: dictator Moammar Khadafy's announcement that Libya would abandon its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Khadafy's apparent repentance has prompted excited speculation that Libya could soon become a functional member of the international community. Indeed, since the announcement, the Libyan regime has dutifully reported arriving shipments of weapons materials and ceased all military trade with North Korea, Syria, and Iran. It was information provided by Libya, in fact, that enabled US intelligence to uncover the profound role of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan in the spread of WMDs to rogue regimes around the world. As a reward, President Bush has eased economic sanctions against Libya, and earlier this week the United States reinstated diplomatic ties with Libya after 24 years of isolation.

But before we proclaim Khadafy the next Gorbachev, we should pay close attention to a criminal case before the Supreme Court of Libya. It is a test of whether Khadafy really has changed his ways or if his overtures are merely empty words masking crude opportunism.

The facts of the case: In 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor, all of whom worked at a hospital in Benghazi, were arrested on charges of intentionally infecting 426 Libyan children with the HIV virus. So far, 40 of the children have died. In 2001, Khadafy stated that the infections were part of a plot by the CIA and Israel's Mossad to weaken the Libyan nation; authorities now allege that the defendants infected the children as part of an effort to discover a cure for AIDS.

The European diplomatic community quickly found giant holes in the prosecutors' case. The Bulgarian nurses confessed only as a result of torture at the hands of Libyan police; two of the nurses allege that they were raped while in custody. When the French doctor who discovered the AIDS virus flew to Libya to conduct his own investigation, he concluded that it was poor hygiene at the hospital that allowed the children to be infected and that the infections began well before the six defendants had even started working there. Such problems with the case did not sway the Libyan courts, however. On May 6, the six defendants were sentenced to death by firing squad. Their fate is now in the hands of the Libyan Supreme Court, which aims to issue its decision sometime next year.

Unfortunately, the incentives that led Libya to scapegoat these innocent foreigners are every bit as potent today as they were at the time of the arrests. An admission that it was the appalling condition of one of its hospitals, not foreign iniquity, that caused the epidemic could cost Khadafy's government as much as $4 billion in settlement payments -- far more than the sum negotiated for the Lockerbie families. Furthermore, the parents of the infected children are understandably outraged, and Khadafy's regime would prefer that their anger not be directed at the state.

That is why the West must let Khadafy know that executing these innocent people will cost him far more than doing the right thing will. The European Union, which will admit Bulgaria as a member in 2007, has set the proper tone by aggressively pushing Khadafy to set the doctor and nurses free. Bulgaria's foreign minister, Solomon Passy, has been relentless in advocating for his condemned compatriots. The State Department has condemned the verdicts, and Kofi Annan and Tony Blair have pledged to help. Even the prime minister of Lebanon has spoken out against the death sentences.

But the democratic community can do more. First, now that diplomatic relations have been reinstated, the US government should tell Khadafy that civilized nations do not tolerate the execution of known innocents. Second, our European allies, with the strong backing of the US government, should work aggressively to persuade Khadafy to pardon the defendants, perhaps by offering financial aid to the victims' families. The Libyan foreign minister has let it be known that a petition for pardon would stand a greater chance of success if accompanied by a pledge of assistance for the stricken families.

One of the cruel ironies of this saga is that in all the hoopla surrounding Libya's possible return to the community of nations, a far more inspiring story is being lost. A mere 20 years ago, Bulgaria, the home of the five condemned nurses, was the most slavishly obedient satellite of the Soviet Union. Today it is a democracy with free markets, a member of NATO, and a candidate to join the European Union. If one is looking for an example of how a totalitarian state can reform itself, it is to Bulgaria, not Libya, that one should look.

Thomas A. Dine is president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 

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