For Immediate Release
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is gravely concerned about the situation of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician originally sentenced to death by firing squad in May 2004 on allegations of intentionally infecting 426 children with HIV at al-Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, Libya. On December 25, 2005, the Libyan Supreme Court ruled on the appeal of the health professionals, who have been detained since 1999, overturning their death sentences and returning the case for retrial to the criminal court in Benghazi.
After months of delays, a Libyan lower court is scheduled to rule on the fate of these foreign health workers, and it is widely believed that the court will issue a new sentence. PHR remains deeply committed to securing the rights of these health professionals, who have repeatedly been denied access to fair and equitable trials. PHR calls on the court to ensure that the current trial is conducted in accordance with internationally recognized fair trial standards. In so doing, the court must throw out the confessions extracted under torture, allow defense attorneys both time and access to consult with their clients, and permit testimony from independent international expert witnesses with scientific evidence regarding the transmission of infections.
Professor Luc Montagnier, a co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS, and Italian microbiologist Vittorio Colizzi sampled viruses from the infected children in 2004 and determined that many of the children had been infected with HIV before the arrival of the nurses and doctor in 1998. Further, the presence of co-contaminants Hepatitis B and C suggests that the victims had been infected by unsanitary conditions at the hospital rather than by any deliberate action. There are several well-known instances of accidental infection due to unsafe blood supply or hospital conditions, including in Romania, the US, and rural China. Some analysts believe that as many as 500,000 infections per year worldwide are caused by unclean needles and other unsafe medical practices.
The Bulgarian nurses- Kristiana Malinova Valcheva, Nasya Stojcheva Nenova, Valentina Manolova Siropulo, Valya Georgieva Chervenyashka and Snezhana Dimitrova- and the Palestinian-born physician, Ashraf Ahmad Jum'a, were working to provide life-saving treatment to patients in need. There is no evidence to suggest that they intentionally harmed the children. Rather, these health professionals went to Benghazi in an effort to improve health outcomes and minimize gaps in services. The six health professionals have spent the past seven years in custody on charges of intentionally infecting the children, despite evidence that the spread of HIV among these children began before the foreign workers arrived in Benghazi and resulted from unsafe medical practices. Last year, nine Libyan health workers also accused of intentionally spreading AIDS among the children were acquitted. The Bulgarian and Palestinian health workers initially signed confessions, but international human rights groups have since reported that the confessions were extracted under torture, which included electric shocks, beating and suspension by the arms.
In May 2004, dozens of the world's leading virologists and AIDS doctors sent an open letter to Colonel Gaddafi protesting the death sentence of the health professionals. Signers included both co-discoverers of HIV, Dr. Luc Montagnier and Dr. Robert Gallo. In May 2005, two dozen health professionals once again renewed their support for the nurses and physician and also expressed their concern for the infected children and their support for international efforts to provide them with the highest standard of treatment.
PHR supports the important efforts to provide funds for the medical care of the HIV-infected children, about 50 of whom have reportedly died. They are the victims of a tragedy that was entirely preventable and we extend sympathy to them and to their families. However, punishing these six health professionals, whose innocence is demonstrated by ample, credible scientific evidence, would only add to the tragedy of this situation. Moreover, Physicians for Human Rights is deeply concerned that charging the foreign health workers with this crime when they were brought in to provide essential medical services sets an alarming precedent that could have global implications. In addition, during the past year, there have been widespread reports that the fate of the nurses and physician rests not on the scientific evidence surrounding the case, but rather on the diplomatic negotiations among the United States, Bulgaria and Libya.
In February 2005, PHR and the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organizations sent a joint delegation to Libya for meetings with the Bulgarian nurses and with Libya's foremost political dissident, Fathi el-Jahmi, who is currently being held in incommunicado detention. PHR has also written a report on the issue of medical safety, which is a problem in many countries.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.