Science shapes outcome of Libyan HIV trial

Bulgarian medics in Libya were accused of deliberately infecting children with HIV Copyright: Ricardo A Fujur (Creative Commons licence from flickr)

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In this Nature article, Declan Butler reports on the Libyan case of six foreign healthcare professionals sentenced to death for infecting children with HIV, and highlights the role scientists can play in human rights issues.

The workers were initially charged with deliberately injecting 400 children with HIV. When the original charges were dropped, they were then accused of using the children as human guinea pigs in an illegal clinical trial.

While their death sentences have now been commuted (see Libya court reduces medics’ death sentence to life), during the initial trial scientific evidence exonerating them was ignored.

Scientists presented evidence that the infection was not only accidental — the result of a lack of safety precautions at the hospital — but that the start of the outbreak occurred before the medics started work at the hospital.

But repeated presentation to the courts of the scientific findings were ignored, on the basis that Libyan doctors’ conclusions were the opposite.

Despite this, scientists were able to highlight that scientific evidence had been ignored. Their advocacy had enough political impact to pressure Libya to exercise clemency.

For those involved, the case showed that by engaging personally with diplomats, scientists can do more in human rights cases.

Link to full article in Nature

Reference: Nature 448, 230 (2007)

Nature doi:10.1038/448230a (2007)