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The defence lawyers for six health workers who face execution in Libya are urging the international scientific community to campaign for the use of scientific evidence in their trial.

The five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor are accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV while they were working at the al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in 1998.

All six were sentenced to death in May 2004, but Libya's Supreme Court overturned their conviction in December 2005.

During their initial trial, the Libyan government requested an evaluation of the scientific evidence by two leading HIV researchers: Luc Montagnier from France, who shares the credit for identifying the virus, and Vittorio Colizzi from Italy.

The researchers analysed virus samples from the children and concluded that many had been infected long before the health workers arrived in Libya.

They said the infections were likely to have resulted from poor hospital hygiene.

But an investigation by Libyan doctors reached the opposite conclusion, and the judges dismissed Montagnier and Colizzi's report and ordered a retrial.

The defence lawyers — from the organisation Lawyers Without Borders — are worried that the scientific evidence will not be treated fairly because of the political sensitivity of the case, reported Nature last week.

According to Montagnier, the children's parents need someone to blame. "Of course this can't be the Libyans, so it falls on the medics," he told Nature. "The trial should be fair and equitable; until now it has been anything but."

The lawyers are now calling for international pressure for an independent scientific review of how the children became infected.

"There's not enough happening," says Declan Butler, whose report in Nature highlighted the case. "Pressure being applied in private by some science academies has not paid off."

"We're seeing a shift of tactics," he told SciDev.Net. "Until now the case has had a fairly low profile, but now the lawyers are calling for greater public support."

In the past week many online blog-writers have rallied around the case, initiating letter-writing campaigns to put pressure on the Libyan government.

On Saturday (23 September) the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice weighed in, calling for the release of the Bulgarian nurses at a meeting in New York City with Libyan foreign minister Abdel-Rahman Shalgham.

Link to Nature's coverage of the trial

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