Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The HIV trial in Libya, part 3: A tale of two idiotic states

This is the third part of my sequel; the first two parts are, respectively, at and (the trial is mentioned also in a number of other posts). Here, I'll try to tell how the accused medics were used as pawns in the unscrupulous chess games of Qaddafi and Bulgarian politicians.
Libya had been for decades the preferred (and often the only available) destination for Bulgarians willing to earn money as guest workers. Bulgaria and Libya as Socialist dictatorships were natural friends. Things began to change after 1989. Ordinary Bulgarians continued flocking to Libya, but the state policies became more pro-Western. In late 1991, the rightist government of Filip Dimitrov came to power and held it until the end of 1992. In order to move Bulgaria closer to the West, it condemned Libya as a state sponsor of terror. I liked this government, which I voted for, and still like it. I think it was right to condemn Libya. However, it was obliged then to discourage Bulgarians from going to Libya and to summon back the thousands of guest workers already there. Instead, the government "forgot" to inform the Bulgarian public about the move it had made! So the relations between Bulgarian and Libyan state became as bad as they could be without an official declaration of war, but Bulgarian guest workers in Libya were in happy ignorance of this important fact. If they knew it, possibly some would prefer to stay home.
As I wrote before (forgive me that I'm repeating some points from the previous part), when Libya made the first arrests of Bulgarian nurses in late 1998, the Bulgarian diplomatic missions "slept" and failed to intervene effectively. Later, there was much blame that Poland and the other nations whose nationals were arrested managed to release them and only Bulgaria failed. If we talk seriously, it is clear some country would fail, exactly as it is clear that in any sport contest there will be a loser. Qaddafi needed scapegoats and would get them, exactly as Scylla would take six men from every passing ship. (It is a curious coincidence that now, after Bulgarian doctor Georgiev was acquitted, the number of Qaddafi's victims is also six.) Even almighty USA felt unable to protect their citizens and, instead, prevented them from going to Libya.
I also don't know what exactly the diplomats had to do. I can't imagine myself being in their shoes and calling the Polish ambassador, "Hello, here is the Bulgarian ambassador. Colleague, could you please tell me how you got your medics released? Whom did you bribe, and how much?". So I don't blame the Bulgarian diplomats in Libya for not saving our arrested nurses; I blame them for apparently not trying to do this at all, for serving their own interests only and letting Bulgarian citizens in grave and undeserved trouble to save themselves.
After detained nationals of other countries were released and more Bulgarians were arrested, it became clear that local diplomacy was becoming powerless and intervention from Bulgarian government was needed (although still unlikely to succeed). At that time, Bulgarian government had other worries. There was war next door in Serbia and, to the horror of Bulgarians, our sky was being used by the NATO air forces and wayward NATO missiles were falling on our land (one hit a house in Sofia). The authorities had to deal with this.
However, the war ended and the Libyan problem could top the agenda. It didn't. Somewhen in the summer of 1999, I saw a head title in the 168 Hours weekly paper, Our nurse in Libya: I infected with AIDS intentionally. You could expect the public opinion to mobilize and force the government to act. It didn't happen. The efforts of the government (a rightist one, headed by Ivan Kostov) were focused on attempts to underestimate the seriousness of the case in Libya and to suppress the unofficial information that the arrested Bulgarians were being tortured and their lives were in danger. At some much later time, Ivan Kostov even said, "We mustn't just say that the accused Bulgarians are innocent. What if they are guilty?".
I had voted for this government and still find it, together with Filip Dimitrov's government, the best in our recent history. The non-Bulgarian reader here is likely to exclaim, "If these are your best governments, I wouldn't want to try your worst ones". And would be right. I wouldn't call my own state idiotic without a reason. Foreign minister in Kostov's government was Nadezhda Mihailova, a lady who did much harm to the Bulgarian democracy (Bulgarian readers know that I don't mean the Libyan case alone). She not only didn't hold to any moral principles, but evidently had too little intellect for the positions she occupied and used this intellect exclusively to enrich her family. Historians will (hopefully) reveal what brought her to the top of Bulgarian politics and kept her there for so long.
The wake-up call was an article about the process in the popular 24 Hours newspaper, titled Libya going to hang 6 Bulgarians?. It lingers in my memory that it was in late 1999, but checking the case's chronology, it is more likely to have been early 2000. The article reported that the six Bulgarians were charged with intentionally infecting Libyan children with HIV and the prosecutor was insisting for a death sentence. The public finally reacted and the government was forced to react as well.
What would I do if I were foreign minister at that time? I think I would speak loudly, bring the case to international human rights institutions, call the international media. This would most likely result in execution of the medics, but if we regard any hostage crisis from purely moral viewpoint, it's most important not to save the hostages but to avoid any appeasement of the hostage taker. Unfortunately, authorities more often follow the easy path and offer to the terrorist whatever he wants, just to have back the hostages. This of course only leads to more kidnappings.
There was another detail that determined our government's stance at that time. It was engaged in a "gas war" with Russia because of unwillingness to yield to insolent blackmail by Gasprom. Russia bought many of the Bulgarian media and the latter were attacking the government all the time. Most notably, it bought TV host Slavi Trifonov, whose show had a very large audience and was almost an institution. Now, the Libyan crisis came as a God's gift. All the pro-Russian, anti-government chorus began to sing, "The government must resign if the medics are executed". Satirical paper Starshel was one of the few sober voices. It wrote that whatever Bulgarian citizens thought about their current government, demanding its resignation in connection with the Libyan case would mean letting the Q-man decide who would rule our country. Unfortunately, nobody listened. Facing this internal crisis, the government naturally went to negotiate with Qaddafi, ready to make any concessions just to postpone the medics' executions till the end of its term!
Now, it's time for me to pay attention to the other idiotic state - Libya. On March 22, 2006, Highlander wrote, "If all the accused had been executed ages ago this story would not have dragged .... but then maybe they ARE innocent ?" ( While the end of the sentence is typical for Highlander, I believe many Libyans and other Arabs would put their signatures under its beginning. Many think that the Bulgarians are guilty and had to be executed swiftly. Dear friends and enemies, don't blame Bulgaria that it didn't happen. It was up to the Q-man. And can you guess why he didn't do it? One needn't be in MENSA to answer this question. Qaddafi wanted things from Bulgaria. He wanted it to entreat in the UN for lifting of sanctions. More importantly, he wanted money - for the Libyan budget and for his own deep pocket. So he and the Bulgarian government had a common interest to protract the case.
Initially I suppose Qaddafi intended to use the Bulgarians just to solve his PR problem. However, when Bulgarian government became active in early 2000, he realized that the detainees were hens bringing him gold eggs. He of course wasn't motivated either to release or to slaughter them. Over the years, the Libyan foreign debt to Bulgaria was reduced more than tenfold. Now, it's reported to be only about $ 50 million and Libya will never pay it, but will put the money in a charity fund for the infected children on behalf of Bulgaria. Besides, undisclosed sums of money have been paid over the years to Qaddafi fund, managed by his son Seif al Islam (the name means "sword of Islam"). This was the legal way for his dad to fill his private pockets. To offer some appeasement to the Bulgarian donors, Qaddafi played the good cop, bad cop game. He was the bad cop and Seif al Islam the good one. The latter repeatedly said that the epidemics must have been due to poor hygiene and the defendants most likely hadn't any intention to infect anybody with AIDS. These statements were clearly meant for export use and, I believe, are still largely unknown to the Libyan public. Also, Seif al Islam gave the green light to call Western AIDS experts as defense witnesses - a move his dad possibly regrets now.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria's position in the world changed. It used to be just a small, poor postcommunist country separated from civilized Europe by the Serbian battlefields. But it became NATO member and recently EU member. So mighty countries began to feel obliged to show solidarity with Bulgaria. The country used the situation and, after so many years of fruitless "quiet diplomacy", gave maximum publicity to the case.
I think that, as Qaddafi observed these changes, he had to jump off the train at some point. He could have the nurses convicted of negligence. Alternatively, he could use the other scapegoat - Palestinian doctor al Hajuj. It was the easiest thing to add an attempt to accuse innocent people for his own crimes to the already long list of charges against the poor man. So Qaddafi could close the case and have no problems. But he didn't, because he wanted more and more gold eggs. Greed never leads to anything good. Now, Qaddafi has no easy way out, pressed by the international community, on one side, and the Libyans, on the other. He has repeatedly stated in public that the Bulgarians are guilty and it isn't easy for him now to admit the opposite. Unfortunately, this means the defendants also have no easy way out.
To the decent Libyans who suffer as they see their country not only scorned but also laughed at by the Western world, I wish to say that such idiocies sometimes help. I am not the only one who thinks that the idiotic move of our dictator Zhivkov to rename the Bulgarian Turks in 1984/85 facilitated his toppling in 1989. But only God knows whether and when Libya will enjoy a similar event. So, those who believe could just say a prayer for all in this case who deserve it - the accused Bulgarians and Palestinian and their families, the infected Libyan children and their families and, most importantly, the uninfected Libyan children.

No comments: