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Finding an Ethical Way to Avoid a Libyan Death Sentence

Libya’s reaffirmation of the death sentences for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of transmitting the aids virus to more than 400 Libyan children continues to pressure all sides to find a suitable outcome. The European Union (EU) has pledged to fund medical care for the infected children, and efforts continue to seek clemency for the accused. Dr. Arthur Caplan heads the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He says that carrying out this week’s decision by Libya’s supreme court does not serve the interests of the parties involved, especially given Libya’s dramatic diplomatic rehabilitation.

“I think that the Libyan government does not want to carry out these executions. I think the Libyan government has been trying to open doors to the international community, and I think we will see ultimately some agreement reached by which compensation is paid – and I’m not sure whether it will be from the Bulgarian government or the European Union or who. But these people, after serving a certain amount of time, are allowed to leave. I don’t think we’re ever going to see this death sentence carried out,” he said.

The medics have been imprisoned since 1999 and their case has been tried twice before Libya’s supreme court last week upheld the death sentence. Dr. Caplan says the reason it has taken eight years to adjudicate is a complicated one.

“Showing how it happened that so many children in a single institution got infected with HIV has been just an epidemiological challenge. And the Libyan government, I think, is acutely aware that the international community is unhappy about the way in which proceedings have been carried out. That’s why we had a retrial. There were a lot of protests, saying that it just wasn’t likely that these nurses and the doctor were the source of the HIV epidemic,” he said.

In addition, a Libyan foundation run by President Moammar Gadhaffi’s son says it has reached a settlement with the children’s families. The Bulgarian government has taken a hard line, rejecting previous efforts on a financial deal to compensate families of the victims. Dr. Caplan says that for their part, the Bulgarians are not giving in because they deny their nurses committed a premeditated act of cruelty against children at the Benghazi hospital where the tragedy occurred. Rather, he says, they cite Libya’s lax sanitary conditions for allowing the catastrophe to happen.

“Dug in on the other side is the Bulgarian government saying, ‘Look, it’s not plausible that people will go out and infect children.’ Now that these death sentences have been reissued, I think with that kind of thing hanging over the heads of the doctor and the nurses, we’re going to get some sort of negotiated resolution,” he predicted.