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Libya Releases Bulgarian Medics: Guest Blog by Laurie Garrett

On 25th October 2006, we published an essay by Laurie Garrett calling for worldwide action to prevent the execution in Libya of six Bulgarian health workers. Because of the urgency of the issue, we peer reviewed and published the piece within 8 hours of submission, along with a blog by Ginny Barbour. Today the health workers were freed. Laurie has written an analysis of the negotiations that led to their freedom, and has agreed for us to post her analysis as a Guest Blog.

"The Benghazi Six are Free!" Guest Blog by Laurie Garrett

July 24, 2007

Dear Friends and Colleagues, The Benghazi Six are Free! The Global Health Program of the Council on Foreign Relations is pleased to tell you that the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor landed in Sofia, Bulgaria early this morning, their Libyan sentences were officially commuted, and they are now safely in the arms of their friends and families. We will provide a little analysis of the last week’s frantic pace of negotiations, but first, a bit of celebration.

To view their landing, see this Reuters video.

Last week we sent you a note celebrating the imminent release of these healthcare workers. We warned that delicate negotiations remained, but that once the Libyan High Court commuted the group’s death sentences the road to freedom was paved. There were many bumps in the road over the last five days, however, and moments of real concern that the entire deal would collapse.

There can be no doubt that the freedom of these healthcare workers constitutes a startling first foreign policy victory for new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who will personally travel to Libya shortly to negotiate the next phases of normalization of the Gadaffi government with the European Union.

After years of long, hard, – and mostly secret – talks between the United States, Bulgaria, Libya and the EU, the Sarkozy government brought a new stage of energy and commitment to bringing an end to this hideous ordeal. For the people of Benghazi, Libya, this is a nightmare that commenced in 1997, when babies and infants began to contract AIDS, all of whom had previously been cared for in the same hospital. For the healthcare workers the horror commenced in 1999, when the Gadaffi government, desperate to deflect blame for what grew to be 426 pediatric infections, rounded up foreigners who worked in the hospital, eventually settling on these six as the fall guys. Two of the Bulgarian nurses confessed to deliberately infecting the children — confessions they say were extracted after weeks of torture. Other prisoners who were in the prison at the time gave testimony to EU investigators confirming the torture allegations, noting that the women, in particular, were subjected to hours of intravaginal electrocution.

Happily, their nightmare is over, and the healthcare workers now face the long task of rebuilding their lives.

For many years the key behind-the-scenes player on behalf of the EU was the European Union’s foreign relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. She tirelessly fought on the healthcare workers’ behalf in the Libyan courts, and in the diplomatic chambers of Tripoli. Much of the credit for this final conclusion must go to Ferrero-Waldner, who flew to Sofia with the freed healthcare workers and seems in television coverage to be as overwhelmed emotionally by their freedom as are they.

The breakthrough appears to have followed a succession of key events. First, Gadaffi put his son between the Libyan courts and the EU, giving him political room to maneuver. The Sarkozy government s sent First Lady Cécilia Sarkozy to Libya twice over the last ten day, where she met not only with the imprisoned healthcare workers, but also with the families of the 426 HIV+ children. Mdm. Sarkozy was accompanied by a powerful team of French diplomats, including chief French presidential aide, Claude Guéant. which worked closely with the Tripoli government to identify issues key to normalization for Libya. Mdm. Sarkozy’s involvement in the negotiations was not applauded by the EU leadership, and the French government took very dramatic, and risky, steps in the last week. Several times, Sarkozy government representatives described the negotiations as “extremely dangerous.” Both the left wing inside France, and the political leadership of the EU denounced Mdm. Sarkozy’s trips and the French government for what was labeled “interference” in EU affairs, and “a diplomatic cuckoo’s nest.”

A key reason for France’s powerful interest in this case is Sarkozy’s unusual decision to name Dr. Bernard Kouchner, a Socialist Party leader, as his Foreign Minister. The move shocked outsiders, as Kouchner is politically far to Sarkozy’s left. But Kouchner is also a pragmatist, and his entry into the Sarkozy government brought other key members of France’s left wing under the conservative Sarkozy tent. Kouchner founded Medecins Sans Frontiers, or MSF – Doctors Without Borders. In a political split with the leadership of MSF – which later received the Nobel Peace Prize — Kouchner founded Medecins du Monde, Doctors of the World, which is considered to be to the left of MSF. During the long Yugoslavian siege of Sarajevo Kouchner dramatically marched through the streets of the city in open defiance of the snipers that murdered helpless civilians and he has made a career through clever use of his larger-than-life persona, on behalf of humanitarian causes. Tomorrow Kouchner will accompany Pres. Sarkozy on his trip to Tripoli, where the next stages in normalization in relations between Libya and the EU will be hammered out. Among the promises France made to Libya in these diplomatic talks is a vow to rebuild the Benghazi hospital, where the infections are believed to have resulted from horrendous hygienic standards and re-use of syringes. The EU also committed to helping Libya restore archaeological sites scattered around the desert country.

Key to the release of the healthcare workers were guarantees of payments (more than $1 million per child) to the families of the HIV+ youngsters, and their access to top-of-the-line European medical care. Both provisions were granted last week, immediately following the commutation of their death sentences. A reported $460 million fund was created, and checks were issued to 460 families – no explanation given for the sudden surge in the numbers of allegedly HIV-infected victims. The EU and Pres. Sarkozy were at pains this morning to make it clear that none of that $460 million came from the Union or any of its member states. A probable explanation for the funds came in Sarkozy’s press conference this morning in Paris, during which he heaped praise on a previously secret player in these negotiations, the government of Qatar.

Among the last minute roadblocks in these negotiations were several economic maneuvers. On Sunday, after the Libyan families had cashed their million dollar checks, Bulgarian relatives of the imprisoned healthcare workers demanded that they, too, be financially compensated for their hardship. The possibility of gaining access to Libyan oil brought many other players out of the woodwork, including European banks and petroleum companies, all eager to get in on the “normalization” discussions. Suddenly there was talk of a European-financed oil pipeline from Libya to Portugal — perhaps not coincidentally related to the fact that Portugal currently holds the Presidency of the EU. By Sunday night it seemed that European players were over-reaching, and oil-greed might sink the entire deal.

Happily, rational minds prevailed, and the six healthcare workers are no longer pawns in a larger, ugly, political game.

Immediately upon their landing in Sofia, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov formally pardoned them, granting all six their freedom and recognizing Palestinian physician Ashraf Alhajouj’s full citizenship.

"The dramatic case with the sentenced innocent Bulgarian citizens is at its end. We are still sympathetic with the other tragedy – the one of the infected Libyan children and their families," he said. — Georgi Parvanov, President of Bulgaria

Zdravko Georgiev, the husband of one of the Bulgarian medics was also held in Libya, and was released today with his wife and her colleagues. Georgiev is the first among the healthcare workers to give media accounts of their ordeal. In a long interview this morning with the BBC (available on the BBC website) Georgiev describes the group’s torture, and allegations made by Libyan authorities. “They said we were agents of the CIA and Mossad, but if I had been an agent, why did I not try to escape back then?” Georgiev asked, referring to the two year window of time that he continued working as a physician in Libya after the HIV infections began. In 1999, when Libyan authorities began their round-up of foreign healthcare workers, Georgiev was working in a remote desert clinic, far from Benghazi, he told the BBC this morning. He is married to one of the Bulgarian nurses, Kristina Valcheva, who was employed in a Benghazi kidney clinic. The BBC continues:

"Then I got a call from a friend, who told me that she (his wife) and the others had vanished, and nobody knew where they were," he recalls.

After traveling to Benghazi, he began a frantic search. It was only later that he found out the nurses had been seized, blindfolded and gagged, beaten and taken to the capital, Tripoli.

"Within a week, the police arrested me too," Dr Georgiev says.

"I had been searching for the Bulgarian nurses all over Benghazi, and they understood I was a dangerous man. I was not afraid of them, because I had done nothing wrong in Libya and I just thought there had been some mistake.

"They said we were agents of the CIA and Mossad but if I had been an agent, why did I not try to escape back then?"

Arrested in 1999, he was accused with other Bulgarians of deliberately infecting children at a hospital with HIV.

The charge against him was dropped, but he spent five years in detention before being convicted in 2004 of currency speculation – "another fabrication", he says. His sentence was cancelled out against time already served, and he was released.

Nonetheless, he was denied permission to leave Libya, and so he lived at the Bulgarian embassy in Tripoli, doing what he could for the Bulgarians who were convicted and sentenced to death in what he insists was a gross miscarriage of justice.

Speaking of his prison experiences, the doctor says he lived for two years in filth with only salty water to drink, sharing a cell measuring 1.9m (6t) by 1.7m (5.5ft) by 3m (9.8ft) with up to eight people at a time.

"Even with three people, it was horrible in there," he says.

"I could not lie down to sleep for two years – I could only sit. You cannot imagine it. In the summer it got so hot, people were passing out."

He never met another European in jail. His fellow prisoners were from all over Africa, most of them murderers or drug-traffickers.

He says he was beaten up by guards, and had four teeth knocked out when investigators attacked him with clubs.

But that was nothing compared to the electric shocks given to the nurses, he says.

"They tortured and treated them like animals – in fact; you would not treat animals like that."

Torture charges were brought against nine policemen and a Libyan doctor, but they were acquitted.

Passing time

Dr Georgiev says the dropping in May 2004 of the HIV charge against him was "stage-managed".

"The police investigators who beat and tortured us decided they wanted to show how fair Libyan justice was so I was declared innocent and the nurses were declared guilty," he says.

After his release, he was denied an exit visa without ever being given a reason, and moved into the Bulgarian embassy.

Allowed to visit the nurses only once every Thursday, he would spend his time doing shopping for them.

Otherwise, unable to practice medicine, he would divide his time between swimming in the Mediterranean, fishing, reading novels, watching TV and meeting friends.

"Many ordinary people in Tripoli know me and I have no problem with them," he says. "They didn't believe this stupid case and they were really good to me."

'We were hostages'

Dr Georgiev believes his government waited too long to help the medics, and that the big change only came when Bulgaria gained the clout of the European Union when it became a member of the bloc.

He speaks of his hurt at how Libyan police, he says, poisoned the minds of the families of the HIV children against the Bulgarians.

"You know, I worked as a pediatrician for 25 years and I loved my job," he says.

"I never had a problem with ordinary Libyans. We are very good doctors and nurses. Libyans trusted us and liked us because Bulgarian medics had been coming to their country for more than 30 years.

"We came here only for money because the situation in our own country was very bad. It was to make some money – nothing else.

"The Libyan government kidnapped us because it knew we were a very weak country at that time. "We feel very bad. We have been humiliated. We are innocent people who have been treated very badly for eight years. We have been hostages and that is the truth."

Today Georgiev and his nurse-friends are free. Libya and the EU are moving towards formal normalization of relations, which no doubt will include fat oil deals for European countries. Sarkozy is, for the moment, Europe’s superstar. And Gadaffi is free to return to the international stage.

The Global Health Program of the Council on Foreign Relations hopes that all players in this horrible affair will recall that at the root of it laid two, still unresolved, vital issues:

1) Can international healthcare workers and scientists be guaranteed political and judicial safety when they enter foreign countries for purposes of providing medical care and humanitarian aid?

2) Will charges of foreign government deliberate release of microorganisms in future be processed through proper channels, namely The Biological Weapons Convention?

We trust that you share in our joy today.

Sincerely, Laurie Garrett

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