Saturday, September 23, 2006

The HIV trial in Libya, part 2: The victims

(This is coutinued from Part 1, which is at
From now on, the story may be wrong in some details because it will rely only on occasional official and unofficial Bulgarian and Libyan sources, which are not very trustworthy (esp. the official ones). Corrections are welcome. However, I believe the picture as a whole is fairly accurate.
An author of detective stories once said that the victim of a crime usually has some characheristics that have led to him/her becoming a victim. In this story, we have two groups of victims: the infected little patients of Benghazi and the accused medics. Let's consider them, the children first.
Why Benghazi
In a recent comment, I called the Iranian opposition "better and stronger" than the Libyan one, implying that the latter, apart from being weak (no wonder - Qaddafi is not the ruler to tolerate alive opposition), doesn't appeal very much to me. It is because, while Iranian opposition is generally pro-Western, opposition-minded Libyans (those who live in Libya and still make their voices heard) are Islamists. In other words, they rebel against the Q-man not because he is an incompetent ruler, liar, oppressor, terrorist and mass murderer, but because they think he isn't Islamist enough. And the center of this opposition is the city of Benghazi. Here, I expect the reader to remember that exactly this city was the center of Libyan February cartoon riots, when at least 11 people laid down their lives (at the same time, residents of Tripoli were reluctant to take part even in an official peaceful demonstration - testimony of Khadija-Teri). Hanu thought that the Benghazi protests were orchestrated by government. I would rather suppose they were provoked by government agents but the ordinary participants were quite sincere. So, the residents of Benghazi must have (on average) more courage than any other group of Libyans but, unfortunately, the same cannot be said about their intellect. The Q-man knows this, understands their way of thinking very well and although they hate him, he can most of the time manipulate them as he wishes.
In 1986, a group of Benghazi residents killed a high-ranking Libyan official. Nine were sentenced and hanged (; warning: graphic photos). I've read (though can't give a link) that the plot was not just secret work of a few people but had wide popular support. Some Bulgarian journalists wrote that, after crushing the rebels, Qaddafi decided to punish the entire city by sharply reducing its funds. Such measures are used in many countries by the central governments against regions expressing dissent (in dictatorships) or just voting for the other party (in semi-democracies). Of course most severely affected are the industries most dependent on subsidies, such as health care.
In the following years, as admitted by a former Libyan health care minister, hospitals throughout Libya were poorly supplied with even the most basic consumatives and medications. This was conveniently blamed on the sanctions and may indeed have been partly due to them. However, in Benghazi the situation was worse than in other places. A Bulgarian nurse who worked for some time at the El Fateh Children's hospital later said, "The senior nurse every morning distributed syringes - 5 for each nurse. No more, no matter how many patients would come."
Another Bulgarian nurse, when beginning work at the same hospital in early 1998, said, "Upon arrival, I was immediately warned by an Egyptian doctor to be very careful, because there was an ongoing AIDS epidemic in the hospital." But nobody warned the patients and the community of Benghazi. Parents continued to bring their little ones to the hospital, thinking they were doing the best for them.
Later in 1998, another Bulgarian nurse - Nasya Nenova, was assigned to work at the same hospital, at a department newly formed especially for the children with AIDS. She wrote to her family: "I am of course very afraid that I may get infected, I work with two pairs of rubber gloves... Some of the children are already in very grave condition. One died last night. At least I hadn't to watch him die, a Philippino nurse was on duty then."
In the following years, dozens more children would die.
Why Bulgarians
As anger accumulated in Benghazi, the regime had to find a way out of the crisis. Of course the truth - that the epidemics was due to the punitive starvation funding of the city, plus shocking incompetence of the hospital's most responsible people - would do little to calm down the spirits. But if the virus was distributed intentionally, then the Q-man and his officials would deserve no blame. So scapegoats were needed. And because the goal was to pacify the Libyans, foreigners would make the best scapegoats.
The regime had plenty of them. Highlander once wrote, "in Libya we have thousands of foreign guest workers in the health sector for whom I am grateful as they make up the deficit." As I wrote before, I'm not sure she should be grateful. Even when they are good and caring professionals, they take positions that would otherwise be occupied by Libyans. To keep the status quo, "they enjoy an enormously better salary than the locals" (same Highlander's post). So they, together with the numerous guest workers in other industries, allow the regime to minimize the number of educated and skilled workers-citizens who are the brain and backbone of any society and in dictatorships often form dangerous opposition. Ottoman Turks made their best to keep the Libyans uneducated and unqualified, and I think Qaddafi today is following their example. Of course the guest workers themselves don't realize this (I haven't seen such a discussion in Bulgarian media, and what isn't in the media doesn't exist for the public). Nor do they realize that one of the reason they are hired is to serve as scapegoats if something goes wrong.
The first scapegoat was Ashraf al Hajuj, a doctor of Palestinian origin. I know little about him; he had lived in Libya since early childhood (probably born there) but, according to the good Arab tradition, was regarded as a Palestinian and not a naturalized Libyan. He was engaged to a Libyan girl who supported him during the following 5 years, but then left him, exhausted to be a fiance of an inmate on death row. After the arrest, al Hajuj was tortured until he was ready to confess anything that was wanted from him.
It is easy to figure out why he was taken. Much later, he said, "The interrogators were telling me that there was nobody to entreat for me because I (as a Palestinian) had no state. I am sure that, hadn't Bulgaria taken me under its protection together with the nurses, I would be now rotting in some mass grave." (I think that if Palestinians had common sense, the name and fate of al Hajuj would be known in every Palestinian house as an illustration of how much their Arab "allies" care for them. If I had such friends, I'd try to strike an immediate deal with my enemy! But of course if Palestinians had common sense, the world would be another and much better place. Mention also that he said "mass grave", not just "grave".)
However, al Hajuj alone was not enough. Non-Arab infidels would make far better villains in the eyes of Benghazeeans, so numerous guest workers were arrested - not only from Bulgaria but also from the Philippines, Poland and other countries. At this stage, there were only two Bulgarian detainees - nurses Snezhana Dimitrova and Sevda Yablanska.
I believe that Libyan authorities made these wide and apparently random arrests to probe which country was least able and willing to protect its nationals. (This protection, I think, contradicts to the very idea of justice, but unfortunately seems needed in today's imperfect world where so many countries are eager to put foreigners to cangaroo courts.) The guest worker communities of Poles and Philippinos, but NOT Bulgarians, swiftly organized and threatened that they would all abandon their contracts and leave Libya immediately if their fellow countrymen were not released. Also, the diplomatic missions of these countries made some unknown to me but apparently effective moves. The Bulgarian embassy also took measures, if you read the official Bulgarian site. However, the unofficial story is different. When a nurse informed the Embassy that two her colleagues were arrested, she obtained the answer, "Let the whores save themselves". So the Bulgarian tradition to fill the diplomatic missions with arrogant, incompetent and lazy people who care neither for the Bulgarian state nor for its nationals brought disastrous results.
There were also other reasons making Bulgaria a good target. It was a small poor coutry outside the mighty Western alliances: we were only applying for NATO, and the EU membership was behind mountains. At the same time, the Bulgarian government in 1992 had condemned Libya as a atate sponsor of terror. Significantly, this government "forgot" to inform its people about this, so Bulgarians going to Libya didn't know that Qaddafi had a reason to regard them as citizens of a hostile state. Next door in Serbia, the next Yugoslavian war was about to burst out (it would be the last one, but nobody knew it at the time). And finally, Libya had a debt to Bulgaria and Qaddafi hoped, with good reason, to get rid of that debt and even to extort additional money.
So the first group of arrested foreign nationals were released, but then 17 Bulgarians were detained. Nurse Nelia Zhdereva said, "They had come for me also, but I didn't open the door. I just stayed quiet, pretending not to be at the quarter." After this, she returned to Bulgaria within days and nobody tried to apprehend her. Those who have read Gulag Archipelago will remember quite similar cases in Stalin's Soviet Union when the security forces, unable to find immediately their intended targets, arrested other people instead. This is to be expected when a certain number of detainees is planned, but their personalities are not very important because they have actually done no crime and the police know this better than anyone else.
Most of the arrested Bulgarians were soon released (some after being tortured), but six were kept. Of the original two detainees, Snezhana Dimitrova was rearrested. Three other nurses working at the El Fateh hospital were also arrested: Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka and the above mentioned Nasya Nenova. Another arrested nurse, Kristiana Valcheva, had never been in the hospital in question. She was working at another hospital hundreds of kilometers away from Benghazi, so she couldn't be accused of infecting kids. Her alleged crime was that she collaborated with Hajuj and obtained the virus from the CIA/Mossad agents "John the Englishman" and "Adel the Egyptian" and handed it to the other nurses to inject the children. Kristiana's husband, Dr. Zdravko Georgiev, was working away from both Benghazi and his wife's workplace. Hearing that his wife had disappeared, he tried to find out what had happened and how to help her. He was arrested also, finishing the list of the accused.
The six Bulgarians were tortured in order to confess. Some of them showed remarkable courage. Valya Chervenyashka later said, "I never considered it possible to help them, to confess the nonsense they wanted from me. I was just awaiting my death." However, she was middle-aged and with kidney and heart problems (her heart stopped twice during the interrogations), so her torturers were aware she could die if they pushed her too hard - and this was not what they wanted.
Kristiana Valcheva and Nasya Nenova were younger and healthier and were pushed harder. Kristiana confessed, but this was not found enough. The investigation brought also evidence - blood banks with HIV found in her quarter. Just don't ask why the banks were found during the 4th search of the quarter, how the virus remained detectable in dried droplets after weeks at room temperature and what methods were used to detect it.
Nasya Nenova, when threatened to be injected with HIV, said, "Well, inject me, so please don't beat me more!" (This is the same nurse who had worked with double rubber gloves to avoid HIV infection.) The worst torturer was Juma Misheri. At one point, he left the city for a couple of days; when Nasya heard he had returned, she attempted suicide. Finally, she was so broken that she confessed three times and now is in a worse situation that even Kristiana.
Juma Misheri was later accused of having used torture but of course was acquitted. He is hailed as a popular hero because he has made the "witches" confess. Oh sancta simplicitas! Don't the people of Benghazi ever ask how many of THEM have been tortured by him?

UPDATE: Today (Sept. 26) I received an e-mail from Dr. Declan Butler, a senior reporter at the top science journal Nature. He is currently trying to use the opportunities of the blogosphere to help the accused medics in Libya. Here is a citation from his Sept. 20 post "Can the blogosphere help free the Tripoli six? — innocent medics risking execution in Libya" (
"“Imagine that five American nurses and a British doctor have been detained and tortured in a Libyan prison since 1999, and that a Libyan prosecutor called at the end of August for their execution… on trumped-up charges of deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998. Meanwhile, the international community and its leaders sit by, spectators of a farce of a trial, leaving a handful of dedicated volunteer humanitarian lawyers and scientists to try to secure their release.
Implausible? That scenario, with the medics enduring prison conditions reminiscent of the film Midnight Express, is currently playing out in a Tripoli court, except that the nationalities of the medics are different. The nurses are from Bulgaria and the doctor is Palestinian.”
These are the opening paragraphs of an unusually strongly-worded editorial — ‘Libya’s travesty‘ – published in tomorrow’s issue of Nature. It is accompanied by a news story over two pages — ‘Lawyers call for science to clear AIDS nurses in Libya‘ — explaining the case. (Both articles are on free access; to access free articles on Nature you just need to register once, and it is free.)"
At, Dr. Butler has listed the blog posts since on the Libya HIV affair.

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