Substantial new scientific evidence supports medics in Libyan HIV court case

A team of international scientists have produced new information that questions the evidence against the six medics on trial in Libya accused of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV.

The five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who have now been incarcerated in a Libyan jail for almost eight years, were accused of deliberately infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV at a hospital in Benghazi in 1998.

In a re-trial in Tripoli of the six health workers which ended last month, the prosecution demanded the death penalty and stood by the evidence of five Libyan HIV/AIDS experts who found in their report in 2003 that the infections resulted from an intentional act.

The court is expected to deliver a verdict on December 19th, but the international scientists who reconstructed the history of the virus from samples from 44 of the children say the subtype of HIV began infecting patients at the Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi years before the foreign medical team arrived.

The researchers worked on blood samples collected by a network of European clinical research centres that are involved in treating the infected children.

Dr. Tulio de Oliveira, a molecular virologist at Oxford University in England, has said the chain of infection started a few years before the arrival of the foreign staff accused of causing it deliberately.

The virologists say all children examined were infected at the same time with a virus typical for Western Africa; a number of immigrants from Western Africa live in Libya.

The scientists have published their findings online in the journal Nature, and say they carried out an extensive analysis using 20 different models, which examined the genetic code of HIV and Hepatitis C viruses from the children in order to determine when the outbreaks started.

De Oliveira says all of them gave a date for the start of the epidemic around the mid-1990s.

The results have been supported by a team of 10 specialists from around the world who reviewed the research; they say the results are "extremely solid."

The six medics have repeatedly protested their innocence and say initial confessions had been extracted under torture.

They arrived in Libya in March 1998 and have been in detention since 1999.

They were sentenced to death by firing squad after being convicted in a trial in 2004, but the international outcry which ensued resulted in the verdict being quashed last year by the supreme court and a re-trial ordered.

De Oliveira and his colleagues in Oxford collaborated with scientists from several European universities to conduct an independent scientific assessment of the data.

Their findings are expected to be presented to the Libyan authorities.

In scientific evidence provided earlier by Luc Montagnier, a co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS, it was also concluded that the infection at the hospital resulted from poor hygiene and the reuse of syringes, and had begun before 1998.

The Libyan authorities appear to have chosen to ignore such substantial and credible evidence, preferring to give more credit to it's own experts.

It must be pointed out that conditions in Libyan hospitals have not apparently improved and many of the surviving children are now being treated overseas in foreign hospitals.

The medics have the full backing of Bulgaria and the European Union as well as the U.S. who are are currently in the process of restoring full diplomatic ties with Libya after decades of hostility, and Libya is under intense pressure to hear independent scientific evidence about the case.

International experts have criticised the scientific report used in the trial in an open letter to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as nothing but 'conjecture' and 'supposition'.

The letter was published last month in Nature, where 114 Nobel Laureates in the sciences called for a fair trial for the medics.

The medics could face the death penalty if found guilty by a court in Tripoli later this month.

Lawyers representing the families of the infected children have requested compensation of 15 million Libyan dinars ($11.6 million) for each infected child, which would lead to a total bill of about $4.6 billion.

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