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Free the `Benghazi Six'

A resolution of the case of foreign healthcare workers sentenced to die in Libya is key to better U.S. ties.

July 14, 2007

NINE YEARS AGO, a group of Bulgarian nurses aiming to escape hyperinflation in their home country moved to Libya to work at a children's hospital in Benghazi. The ordeal of false accusations, torture, kangaroo trials and imprisonment they suffered soon after is the stuff of horror stories -- and indeed, the Hollywood production company behind "Hotel Rwanda" has optioned their tale for a motion picture. Whether it will have a happy ending will probably be determined on Monday.

In 1998, the biggest hospital-borne HIV outbreak in history occurred at the Benghazi hospital, with more than 400 children infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The Libyan government, needing someone to blame, performed an investigation that not surprisingly cleared the healthcare system of wrongdoing, but targeted foreign hospital workers. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were charged in 1999 with intentionally infecting the children in what prosecutors said was a plot by the Israeli intelligence service to undermine Libyan society.

Contaminated plasma was alleged to have been discovered in one of the nurses' rooms, but when foreign scientists asked to see the evidence, Libyan authorities refused. Prosecutors produced confessions from the suspects, but all later recanted, saying they had been tortured. Numerous outside investigations, including by the World Health Organization, concluded that the outbreak was caused by unsterilized equipment, and two of the world's foremost AIDS experts testified at trial that many of the children were infected before the foreign workers had even arrived at the hospital. The six were nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death.

That sentence was confirmed Wednesday by Libya's supreme court. Oddly, the verdict was received in Bulgaria as good news. That's because, with the legal process over, politicians are free to intervene. Seif Islam Kadafi, the European-educated son of Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi, says his charitable foundation has reached a deal with the families of the infected children to release the suspects, which will be considered Monday by the government-controlled High Judicial Council. It's expected to involve funding for a new hospital and might include compensation for the families -- under Islamic law, defendants who pay "blood money" to victims' families can buy their release.

Relations between Libya and the United States are normalizing after decades of hostility; on Wednesday, President Bush announced that he would appoint an ambassador to Tripoli for the first time since 1972. The "Benghazi Six" case has slowed the process of reconciliation, and Moammar Kadafi would doubtless like to see it resolved. Even if Libya is no longer a pariah state, though, its disgraceful treatment of the foreign health workers makes it clear that Tripoli will have to be kept at arm's length for some time to come.

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