Libya: AIDS Panic in Libyan Arab Jamahiriya


Nine Libyan citizens, six Bulgarians, and one Palestinian have been held in pre-trial detention for almost two years, after being arrested in January 1999 in connection with the alleged infection of 393 children with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in Al-Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, northeast of Tripoli. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

The trial is in no way a measured legal response to alleged medical malpractice. Instead, it appears to reflect unchecked and irrational anxieties about the violability of national boundaries and the foreign origins of HIV. IGLHRC joins with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee in expressing grave concern at the prolonged detention of the accused, including long periods in which they have been held incommunicado; at credible allegations that they have been tortured; at the apparent arbitrariness of many of the charges; and at numerous procedural irregularities on the part of Libyan authorities, including interference with the right to counsel. Urgent letters are needed to protest the conduct of this case, and to demand a fair trial and the removal of the threat of the death penalty.


Appeals should be made to the following authorities:

Colonel Mu'ammar Qadafi
Leader of the Revolution
Office of the Leader of the Revolution
Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Salutation: Your Excellency
Mohammed Mohammed Belgassem al-Zuia
Minister of Justice and General Security
Office of the Minister of Justice and General Security
Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Salutation: Your Excellency

Please also send a copy of your letters to the Libyan mission to the United Nations:

Ambassador Abuzed Omar Dorda
Mission of Libya to the United Nations
309 East 48th Street
New York, New York 10017
Tel: +1 212 752 5775
Fax: +1 212 593 4787
Home page:
Salutation: Your Excellency

Please also send similar letters, expressing your concern over the situation, to:

Secretary General Esmat Abdul Meguid
League of Arab Nations
l Tahrir Square
P.O. Box 11642
Tel: +202 575 0511 or 202 575 2966
Fax: +202 574 0331
Telex: 92111 ALS UN
Salutation: Your Excellency
Secretary of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights
Kairaba Avenue
P. O. Box 673
The Gambia
Telephone +220 392 962 or +220 392964
Telex: 2346 OAU BJL GV
Fax: +220 390 764
Salutation: Your Excellency

Please send copies of your letter to the following parties:

1. Bulgarian Helsinki Committee
Krassimir Kanev, Director
7 Varbitsa Street
1504 Sofia
Tel/Fax:+ 359 2 943 48 76
+ 359 2 46 55 25
+ 359 2 46 75 01
e-mail: or
Salutation: Dear Sir
2. Petar Stoyanov, President of Bulgaria
Office of the President
Bul. "Kniaz Dondukov" 2
1123 Sofia
Tel: +359 2 98 38 39 (Central)
Salutation: Your Excellency

Sample Letter to Colonel Qadafi (please modify appropriately for letters to the League of Arab Nations and the African Commission on Human and People's Rights):


Your Excellency:

I wish to express my grave concern for the safety and bodily integrity of sixteen individuals detained in connection with the case of 393 children infected with HIV at Al-Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, in the Libyan Arab Jamahariya, where they were employed. Nine are Libyan citizens, one is a Palestinian, and six are Bulgarian nationals. Most of the detainees have been held without bail for almost two years, in clear violation of international standards. During much of this time they have been prevented from communicating with their families, and communication with legal counsel has been restricted as well. There are credible allegations that at least some among the detainees have been tortured.

The detainees should, at a minimum, be guaranteed free and regular access to lawyers and to relevant information in their native language; to medical care if necessary; and to their families. Impartial parties should investigate the conditions of their detention, monitor their treatment, and identify perpetrators of mistreatment, who should be appropriately prosecuted and punished. The victims and their families should receive due compensation.

I also ask that you demonstrate your commitment to a fair application of justice, by fair and open trial through the following measures:

  • Permitting an international mission of independent monitors to attend the trial;
  • Delaying the trial until (but only until) such a mission is able to attend;
  • Allowing the defense to bring in expert medical testimony;
  • Providing assurance that under no circumstance will capital punishment be imposed.

As a signatory to major international human rights treaties, you have an obligation to protect and promote the principles enshrined therein. As acceding party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, you have recognized that "everyone should be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law" and that defendants should be tried without undue delay (ICCPR, Article 14). Article 9 of the ICCPR protects against unnecessarily extended detention of persons awaiting trial. And Article 7 of the ICCPR protects against "torture or . . . cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." This latter protection-grossly violated in this case if the reports of released Bulgarian detainees are true-is both confirmed and elaborated in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which Libya has been an acceding party since 1989.

Moreover, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners mandates that "Prisoners shall be allowed under necessary supervision to communicate with their family and reputable friends at regular intervals, both by correspondence and by receiving visits." It also mandates that "Prisoners who are foreign nationals shall be allowed reasonable facilities to communicate with the diplomatic and consular representatives of the State to which they belong." I am concerned as well that these conditions are not being met in this case.Ê

I urge you immediately to implement and enforce more efficient systems for monitoring treatment of all detainees in the criminal justice system of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, so as to ensure that their internationally recognized rights are fully protected.

If there is a blood contamination crisis in Libya-if the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya's blood supply is threatened by HIV infection-it is the responsibility of the State and all its agencies to address this. Singling out scapegoats through the criminal justice system cannot be considered a safe or adequate response. Inventing conspiracies detracts energy and distracts attention from the necessary and mutual work of protection. All human beings have the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights), and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits (Article 27, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It is the responsibility of your whole government to protect life by rendering these rights real.Ê

I urge you to take steps to ensure that your public health system and other relevant systems meet international standards promulgated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS for the prevention of infections due to contaminated blood and blood products. Productive steps might include establishing a commission to investigate the state of the blood system, identify weaknesses, and implement measures to address those weaknesses, perhaps through the establishment of national standards explained clearly in legislation. Strong regulation could strengthen compliance with a national blood policy. Libya is not the first country to have a blood contamination crisis: it can learn from the experiences of others.

Thank you for your urgent attention to these matters.



The Libyan Arab Jamahiriya has indicted nine Libyan citizens, a Palestinian, and six Bulgarians working and studying as guests in Libya, on numerous charges in relation to an incident of mass HIV infection at Al-Fatah Hospital in Benghazi. Aside from the Libyan indictment, little information is available about this incident. Reportedly almost 400 children were infected, and at least 23 have died.

Polish, Hungarian, and Filipino health professionals were also detained, but following intervention by their respective embassies or consulates, charges were dropped and they were released. Several other Bulgarian medical professionals were arrested in the case; however, charges against them were dropped, and they were allowed to leave the country.

The 16 accused individuals were taken into detention in January 1999 and await trial. Reportedly, the accused Libyans have been released on bail. However, the foreign nationals remain in detention. According to Amnesty International, for the first ten months of detention the defendants were held "without access to the outside world, relatives, or legal representatives" (AI Index MDE 19/013/2000, September 15, 2000).

The trial has been postponed six times. After a recent postponement of a November 4, 2000 trial date, it is now scheduled to opened in January 2001. The names of the indicted Bulgarian nationals are: Ms. Kristiana Malinova Valcheva, Ms. Nasya Stojcheva Nenova, Ms. Valentina Manolova Siropulo, Ms. Valya Georgieva Chervenyashka, Ms. Snezhanka Ivanova Dimitrova -all nurses--and Dr. Zdravko Georgiev. The Palestinian, a medical student studying in Libya, is Mr. A. (full name withheld). Names of the Libyan health officials are withheld here for reasons of confidentiality.

The defendants will be tried in a special court, the People's Court, which enforces both Libyan penal law and elements of Islamic law as it is interpreted in Libya. The bill of indictment (No. 99/44) offers a sweeping array of charges. The defendants are alleged to have "committed actions . . . leading to uncontrollable killings with the aim of assaulting the safety of this county." The infection of the children is attributed not to medical malpractice but to deliberate intent: the defendants injected the children with HIV virus, "and thus have been qualified as 'murderers-poisoners.'" On this basis the seven foreign nationals are charged with random killing with the aim of attacking the security of the State (Article 202), as well as intentional killing with a lethal substance (Article 371), and generating an epidemic through spreading harmful microbes leading to the death of persons (Article 305).

Other charges levelled at the Bulgarian and Palestinian defendants rouse the suspicion that the case is meant to stigmatize and punish foreigners for violation of so-called Islamic norms, and for their actions in and supposed influences on the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. The Palestinian defendant and several among the Bulgarian female nurses are charged with having "had sexual intercourse with other persons with whom they are not in a lawful marital relationship," which constitutes "a criminal incitement . . . with the aim to continue the execution of the above-named injections." One of the Bulgarian nurses is charged with producing alcoholic beverages, including "wines to be drunk with other people of different nationalities." And it is alleged that five of the Bulgarians "as non-Muslims have drunk spirits in public places, arranging pleasure trips to the seaside, in public forests and in other public places." Finally, various of the Bulgarian defendants are charged with dealing in foreign currency on the black market, and with importing or exporting foreign currency without making a customs declaration.

Many of these offenses are potentially capital crimes in Libya. Article 4 of Libya's Promotion of Freedom Act, and the Great Green Document on Human Rights, call for the death penalty for "a person whose life endangers or corrupts society." A 1996 law reportedly imposes the death penalty on those who speculate in foreign currency, food, clothes, or housing during a state of war or blockade, and for crimes related to drugs and alcohol.

The Libyan nationals in the case, meanwhile, face charges of negligence and abuse of authority. Among other offenses, they are accused of concealing the incidents of infection "in order to keep their positions and the prestige of the children's hospital." They are accused of "spreading lethal microbes among nineteen of the mothers of children" at Al-Fateh hospital, by concealing the fact of their children's infection and allowing the virus to be transmitted through breast-feeding. And finally, in what may be an indication of the xenophobic atmosphere behind the prosecution, one Libyan national-apparently a hospital director or official-is charged with "creating a financial burden on the state cash register resulting from the employment of medical workers from Bulgaria, part of which had been proven to be unqualified to perform the duties of medical nursing personnel."Ê

The charges transparently reflect anxiety about the porousness of national borders, no less easily penetrable by alien mores than by lethal microbes. Both IGLHRC and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee believe that these charges may have been brought against foreign nationals with the intention of identifying HIV/AIDS as a condition imported into Libya with sinister motives and by deliberate means-thus meshing with other fears about the vulnerability of a politically isolated country and its cultural norms. Hence the proceedings may well be essentially political in character, a "show trial" or a "doctor's plot" remniscent of Stalin's machinations, a spectacle meant to establish not just the foreign source of HIV infection but the malevolent intent behind its transmission. Additional charges appear to have been brought against some of the defendants specifically in order to stigmatize them as violators of national and religious values-as well as participants in despised if widespread activities, such as currency exchange. For decades, Libya has hired Bulgarians, Palestinians, and other foreign nationals-including many personnel from the former Soviet bloc--to fill jobs for which it has a shortage of qualified workers. Essential to the economy yet often unfamiliar with custom, providing necessary support yet occasioning suspicion, such "guest workers" can serve both as a focus of anxiety and as a scapegoat for it.

According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, several of the Bulgarians whose cases were dismissed reported that confessions from the detainees were obtained by force and that detainees were tortured. For example, Ms. Nadya Dervisheva, a Bulgarian nurse who was arrested with the detainees but later released without being prosecuted, states that one of her colleagues in detention acknowledged to her that she had been tortured. Mrs. Dervisheva observed this woman limping due to her mistreatment: the detainee needed prison staff to help her walk. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reports that Bulgarian officials have requested Libyan officials to investigate reports of mistreatment, but have received no response. The Palestinian detainee, Mr. A., was allowed to be visited by his family in early 2000. They later reported to staff of Human Rights Watch in New York that they observed "black marks" on his hands. He told them he had been subjected to electric shock.

The foreign nationals on trial were only allowed access to defense lawyers well after hearings in the case had begun. According to Amnesty International, the Libyan defense lawyer for the Bulgarian defendants, Osman Bizanti, told the media in May 2000 that he had only met his clients on two occasions. Bizanti has also confirmed that several of his clients have complained that confessions were extracted under duress.

In June 2000, a Libyan court ruled that, in order for a Bulgarian defense lawyer to take part in the trial, Bulgaria first had to amend its own laws to allow Libyan lawyers to defend Libyans in Bulgarian courts. Bulgaria immediately complied, and in August 2000, attorney Vladimir Georgiev joined the defense. However, he has been hampered by his ignorance both of the Arabic language and of the Libyan legal system, raising additional questions about the fairness of the coming trial.

High Bulgarian officials have repeatedly visited Libya to discuss the case with the head of state, Colonel Qadafi. The Bulgarian prime minister has stated, "We are doing everything possible [in order] that the trial proceed in accordance with the internationally adopted rules, that the international legislation and the bilateral agreement between Bulgaria and Libya is observed."

According to UNAIDS, an estimated 1,400 people in Libya (out of a population of approximately 5.6 million) are infected with the AIDS virus; the modes of transmission are unspecified.