Libya’s Supreme Court should consider the torture claims of six foreign medical workers on death row for injecting 426 Libyan children with HIV, Human Rights Watch said. The court will review the case today.
Four of the six defendants, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, told Human Rights Watch in May that they confessed after enduring torture, including beatings, electric shock and sexual assault. Libyan officials denied all of the defendants prompt access to a lawyer, they said. In June, a Tripoli court acquitted 10 Libyan security officials accused of using torture against the defendants.
“There are credible allegations of torture against the foreign health workers,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “The Libyan Supreme Court should take these facts into account and reject the death sentences.”
Today the Supreme Court can accept the death sentences or return the case to a lower court. It can also postpone reviewing the case, as it has done before.
Libyan authorities arrested the Bulgarians and Palestinian in February 1999, and charged them with purposely infecting 426 children with HIV. The children were patients in the al-Fatih Children’s Hospital in Benghazi. A Benghazi court sentenced the foreign health workers to death by firing squad in May 2004. Nine Libyans who worked at the hospital were acquitted.
At least 50 of the children infected with HIV have died, and the case has deeply angered the Libyan public.
“The plight of these innocent children is a tragedy,” Whitson said. “But their suffering should not impede justice or lead to more abuse.”
Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of the HIV virus, testified in the 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.
But Libyan medical experts for the prosecution claimed the infections resulted from intentional injections of the AIDS virus by the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical workers. The prosecution claims the defendants confessed to their crime.
Four of the foreign health workers told Human Rights Watch that interrogators subjected them to electric shocks, beatings to the body with cables and wooden sticks, and beatings on the soles of their feet, in order to extract their confessions. In May, Human Rights Watch interviewed the foreign health workers in Tripoli’s Jadida prison.
“I confessed during torture with electricity. They put small wires on my toes and on my thumbs. Sometimes they put one on my thumb and another on either my tongue, neck or ear,” Valentina Siropulo, one of the Bulgarian defendants, told Human Rights Watch. “They had two kinds of machines, one with a crank and one with buttons.”
Another Bulgarian defendant, Kristiana Valceva, said interrogators used a small machine with cables and a handle that produced electricity.
“During the shocks and torture they asked me where the AIDS came from and what is your role,” she told Human Rights Watch. She said that Libyan interrogators subjected her to electric shocks on her breasts and genitals.
“My confession was all in Arabic without translation,” she said. “We were ready to sign anything just to stop the torture.”
The five Bulgarian nurses are being held in a special wing of Jadida prison, where they now get regular visits from their lawyers and Bulgarian officials. The Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Jum'a, is in the men’s section of the prison by himself in the wing for those on death row.
“We had barbaric, sadistic torture for a crime we didn’t do,” Jum'a told Human Rights Watch during an interview conducted in the presence of a prison guard. “They used electric shocks, drugs, beatings, police dogs, sleep prevention.”
“The confession was like multiple choice, and when I gave a wrong answer they shocked me,” he said. He claimed that the defendants were also forced to shock each other.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed one of the 10 Libyan security officials tried in June for using torture against the foreign health workers. Jummia al-Mishri, a lead investigator in the case and one of the torture defendants, insisted that Jum'a had confessed willingly. He claimed that investigators had found two bottles with the HIV virus in Kristiana Valcheva’s house.
Al-Mishri argued that the foreign health workers had complained of torture three years after their arrest, suggesting that they concocted the claims. But Jum'a told Human Rights Watch that he and the other defendants complained of torture during their first court session in 2000, but the judge dismissed the complaint. The court also denied them a lawyer until their first day in court, the foreign health workers said.
On June 7, a Tripoli court acquitted al-Mishri and the nine other Libyan security officials—seven policemen, a doctor and a translator—accused of torturing the foreign health workers.
The Benghazi AIDS case has become an international affair. Both the European Union and the United States are involved in negotiations between the Libyan and Bulgarian governments. Top Libyan officials have suggested the defendants could be pardoned if Bulgaria paid compensation to the families of the victim. But the Bulgarian government has refused the offer because it implies an admission of guilt.
On November 10, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the Libyan leader’s influential son and the head of the Qaddafi Foundation, said he did not believe the foreign medical workers were guilty. His foundation has helped secure the defendants better conditions in prison.
Human Rights Watch is also appealing for ongoing medical aid for the Libyan children infected with HIV. The Association for Child Victims of Aids in Benghazi told Human Rights Watch in May that 19 mothers of these children are also infected with the virus.
“Tell the world that these children are innocent and suffering,” Ramadan al-Faturi, the association’s spokesman told Human Rights Watch. He demanded better training for Libyan doctors and psychological support for the families.
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