(New York, December 19, 2006) – The death sentences announced today by a lower court in Tripoli against six foreign medical workers for purposely infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV is a gross miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said today.
“We had placed hope in the retrial, but this verdict proves that for these foreign medical workers, justice is still elusive,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Defense lawyer Othman Bizanti told the media that he would file an appeal before Libya's Supreme Court.
Libyan authorities arrested the six defendants, a Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Jum`a, and five Bulgarian nurses, Nasya Nenova, Kristiana Valceva, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka, and Snezana Dimitrova, in February 1999. The court charged them with purposely infecting 426 children with HIV, who were patients in the al-Fatih Children’s Hospital in Benghazi, where the medics worked. A Benghazi court relied on the medical workers’ confessions in sentencing them to death by firing squad in May 2004.
In prison interviews in May 2005, four of the six defendants told Human Rights Watch that they had confessed only after enduring torture, including beatings, electric shock and sexual assault.
The Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Jum`a, told Human Rights Watch in an interview conducted in the presence of a prison guard: “We had barbaric, sadistic torture for a crime we didn’t do. They used electric shocks, drugs, beatings, police dogs, sleep prevention.”
Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of the HIV virus, testified in the 2004 trial that the children were probably infected as a result of poor hygiene at the hospital, and that many of the children had been infected with HIV before the arrival of the foreign health workers in 1998.
Under enormous international pressure, the Libyan Supreme Court overturned the sentences of the six health professionals in December 2005, noting certain “irregularities,” and ordered their retrial in a lower court in Tripoli, which again sentenced the defendants to death.
“The tragedy of these children being infected with HIV will only be compounded by wrongly convicting these medical workers,” said Whitson. “There’s still a window of opportunity for the Libyan judicial system to do the right thing, and we hope they will do so.”
Human Rights Watch also raised serious concern about the death penalty sentence imposed against the foreign workers. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel and inhumane nature.
International human rights standards stipulate that where the death penalty has not been abolished, it should be imposed only in cases where due process has been scrupulously applied, which is clearly not the case in this trial.