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Libya's AIDS scapegoats

FOR ALMOST eight years, Libya has imprisoned six foreign medical professionals on trumped-up charges of purposely infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS. During that time, Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy's decisions to renounce nuclear weapons and compensate victims of Libya's bombing of a jet plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, have led to the reopening of diplomatic relations with the United States. Now the Bush administration should quietly use the influence it has with Tripoli to persuade it to free the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor as quickly as possible.

The workers have made confessions but only after torture. After initial convictions and death sentences for the six in 2004 were thrown out on a technicality in 2005, a Libyan court ruled again last month that they are guilty and must be executed.

This is in spite of evidence in a peer-reviewed scientific study, which the court refused to consider, that children were being infected in the hospital in Benghazi even before the six began working there. Independent scientists are convinced that the children, about 50 of whom have died, became infected through unintentionally contaminated equipment or blood products. According to Physicians for Human Rights, such unsafe medical practices have been the source of HIV infections in many countries, including China, Kazakhstan, and Romania. Instead of dealing with such problems, Libya pointed a finger at the six workers.

In 2005, Libya, Bulgaria, the United States, and the European Union created an international fund to pay for the medical care and other costs of the infected children, as well as improved equipment for the Benghazi hospital. While additional financial support for the fund might be in order, the parents of the children have called for far more compensation, as much as the $10 million that Libya agreed to pay to each of the families of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Under Libyan law, compensating victims in this way can result in release of the accused, but Bulgaria has balked at this, not least because it would appear to be an admission of guilt.

When the new guilty verdict was announced last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "These are people who deserve to go home, and we are very disappointed at the outcome of this verdict." The State Department should make it clear to Khadafy that truly normal relations with the United States will be possible only after the six have been released. Diplomatic action is needed not just to reverse this travesty of justice, but also to head off the threat this case presents to the willingness of health professionals to work in foreign countries that need their skills. Libyan scapegoating should not be allowed to compound the terrible toll AIDS has already taken.

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