Libya's science fiction travesty

Science fiction masquerading as science fact is eccentric but usually relatively harmless (such as some ufology). But when it is a matter of freedom, life and death let alone justice for the living and the dead, then it is another matter. Recently the science community has begun to rally around one such cause.
Should, asks Jonathan Cowie, scientists in the SF community add their weight?


There is a certain commonality among those of us who are qualified scientists and technologists who positively enjoy science fiction. Such goes beyond academic training. This commonality includes developed senses of curiosity and wonder as well as that of discrimination between the factual, the hypothetical and the fictional even if each are valued in their own way.   However when a science and technology related incident takes place that concerns life and death as well as freedom and justice, not to mention the true representation of science, then surely, surely we have something to contribute?

Imagine for a moment that -- being the good-natured person that you are -- you have had a job in healthcare for many years and then decided to go abroad to carry on the good work. Then suddenly one day you are accused of deliberately infecting over 400 children using some sort of genetically modified HIV (the virus that results in AIDS), and even that this was part of some United States' CIA plot along with Israel's Mossad. Tragically some 51 of the children have died. Yet these charges are (especially in the light of evidence that includes a scientific analysis) clearly ridiculous, so you might well think that justice will out and that once your case is heard you will be set free. However you are tortured and a 'confession' is extracted from you.

Despite this you might be relived to have both the World Medical Association and International Council of Nurses fighting for your case.   You would probably welcome leading scientists, from France, Egypt, Iran, the West Bank and Gaza and the US, speaking up on your behalf. In short you may well be confident that you will get justice.

You might even be doubly confident to learn that some of the children were found to have been infected with HIV before you even entered the country and so you could not be to blame. You may be reassured to learn that an alternative, more likely cause, for the children's infection had been found, and even delighted that if this was actually recognised, and addressed, many lives in the future would be saved.

Imagine then your despair having been found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad... And then the despair barely relieved when your sentence is reduced to imprisonment in the foreign land.   Meanwhile through all this you have been languishing in the foreign jail for 8 years! This is a sentence that itself would be meted out to serious criminals and not an innocent.

Then multiply all this by 6!

Now, what with the creation of a supposed genetically modified AIDS virus, an international setting, the alleged involvement of two active and well-funded secret services, torture and murder, you may well think that all this was the plot to some SF techno-thriller. Indeed you could even be forgiven this if I added to this mix: heads (and relations to the heads) of state, as well as international acts of terrorism and vociferous public demonstrations calling for revenge. Yet this is not some fantasy -- you couldn't make it up if you tried -- but an ugly reality which people are currently (the end of 2006) living through. This is what happened...

Back in 1998, nearly nine years ago now, 426 children in a Libyan hospital were diagnosed as infected with HIV. Tragically since then 51 of them have died. Naturally this caused a huge outcry in Libya that was in part further fuelled by the children's parents' understandable anger. Then in 1999 five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, some of whom arrived in March 1998 to work in the hospital, were arrested for trial. They were: Christiana Malinova Valcheva, Valia Georgieva Cherveniashka, Nasia Stoitcheva Nenova, Valentina Manolova Siropulo, Snezhana Ivanova Dimitrova and Ashraf Ahmad Jum'a.

Under questioning they were tortured and 'confessions' extracted. Matters got even more confused during the trial; a mis-translation of the term 'recombinant' (meaning a natural recombination of viruses) was interpreted as 'genetically modified' implying deliberate human manipulation. In 2001 Libya's President Muammar Gadaffi argued that the health workers were part of a CIA plot with Mossad, presumably to test out a new genetically modified bioweapon in his country.

As part of the investigation for the trial the Libyan government asked Luc Montagnier (a French scientist who led one of the teams that first isolated HIV) and Vittorio Colizzi (an Italian AIDS researcher) to examine the scientific evidence. The two carried out a genetic analysis of viruses from the infected children. They concluded that many were infected before the medics arrived in Libya. (Viruses like HIV mutate slightly with time (which is one reason why it is a pain to come up with an effective vaccine for AIDS). So by comparing the similarities and differences between the viruses in the individual children as well as comparing them with strains elsewhere, it is possible to get an idea of when infection took place. Another consequence of HIV viruses mutating with time is that those that have been in the global human population the longest (hence dispersed the earliest) established 'families' of strains in different parts of the World. So what infected the children? Many of the children were found to be also infected with hepatitis B and C, suggesting that the infections were spread by poor hospital hygiene. As for the main HIV strain itself, the infections were of subtypes of A/G HIV-1 -- a recombinant strain common in central and West Africa, that is known to be particularly infectious.

Yet despite commissioning this evidence the Libyan court rejected it in favour of a report by Libyan clinicians. Antoine Alexiev, a lawyer for the defence, is reported as commenting that the decision to throw out the Montagnier & Colizzi report removed all scientific content from the case, leaving a series of prejudgements, and confessions extracted under torture. "It's scandalous," he says. "This is a complex scientific affair, and it is impossible to judge it without a scientific basis."

The Tripoli six, as the health workers were becoming known, were sentenced to death by firing squad in May 2004. There was, fortunately, an appeal which took many months to come to a conclusion. Then on the 10th of November 2004, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the Libyan leader's influential son and the head of the Qaddafi Foundation, said he did not believe the foreign medical workers were guilty. His Foundation also helped secure the defendants better conditions in prison. This act alone speaks volumes. Then the following month the death sentence was commuted.

You can easily find articles about all this on the web. Here are links to just a couple from: The Guardian and Aunty BBC.

Meanwhile in the 'real' world Libya was trying to re-establish normal relations with the West. These had broken down due to the blowing up of an airliner over the small town of Locherbie in Scotland killing those on the plane and some of Locherbie's residents. In recent years leading politicians from both the UK and the US have been visiting Libya to bring that country back into the global fold.

Now this story has been covered by the clinician community and in the UK notably by the British Medical Journal (which is published by the British Medical Association who in turn belongs to the World Medical Association mentioned early in this article). In the UK it has also been covered by Nature, a leading multi-disciplinary science journal and by a number of specialist groups including, even, the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation's seasonal science fiction news pages [here, here and here]. Yet there has been no progress. Everyone seems to have been hoping that this would all be sorted out by the politicians on both sides brokering Libya's normalization of international relations. Sadly this has not happened.

Where we are now, at the tail end of 2006, is that the organization Lawyers without Borders has called for an international, independent scientific inquiry. Cellular and molecular biologists reading this might like to look at a couple of science papers relating to the case: Visco-Comandini U., et al. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses., 18, 727 - 732 (2002). and Yerly S., et al. J Infect Dis., 184, 369 - 372 (2001).

Meanwhile Luc Montagnier, says. "It's embarrassing politically for Gaddafi, but there is the pressure of the parents, who absolutely need to find a scapegoat. Of course this can't be the Libyans, so it falls on the medics." One could add to Montagnier's comment that if the real cause of the infections -- poor hygiene and re-using unsterile equipment -- were properly recognised then matters might be improved elsewhere and so reduce further HIV spread preventing more patient death and suffering.

OK, so why is this article being posted on the Concat site? Well this autumn there is a move by science, clinician and allied biomedical bloggers for average people to try to get something done. The politicians have so far failed. So the idea is to get the media to look at this issue more closely hence force politicians to address this issue. This individual action is being undertaken on the internet. If you feel that this is an issue with which you would like to help then you can do a number of things.

First you can cover the story on your own web page if you have one and link to some of the sites that have given you information. Our friends at Google will do the legwork in analysing how pages link and so ramp up the story in Libya related search strings. Second, if you have a blog you can do the same. Some blogs apparently are pointing to which in turn feeds information on blogs to journalists. Declan Butler of Nature is centralizing other bloggers posts at the Tripoli Six tag on Declan's own personal blog has details. Of course if you want to give hard cash to any of the elements involved in fighting this case then feel free to do so, but right now it is important to spread the word. Word is already beginning to reach out through the science and clinician community though every single bit of extra coverage helps (and will continue to do so as long as just one new person joins in from anything that you yourself do). The thing is to blog and web post quick. This article is a contribution to try and get the word out to those scientists (technologists etc) who are into science fiction who arguably, as explained above, have an interest. Not all science graduates go into research or medicine (hence read journal's like Nature or the British Medical Journal). In fact in total more science graduates embark on other careers such as (environmental) monitoring, teaching, policy administration, or commerce. Some of these enjoy SF and a few (globally speaking) visit this Concatenation site. Making a fiction out of science should not, one might reasonably argue, be undertaken for political convenience let alone to persecute innocents simply to provide scapegoats for a poorly run health system that spreads disease. (Making fictions out of science should instead be left to those who do science fiction.)

Thank you for taking you time to read this far. Over to you.

Jonathan Cowie

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