The back­story on the Tripoli Six is bizarre, to say the very least. Six med­ical prac­ti­tion­ers — five nurses and one doc­tor — were accused in 1999 of delib­er­ately infect­ing over 400 Lybian chil­dren with HIV.

It’s bull­shit, of course; leav­ing aside the pos­si­ble polit­i­cal rea­sons that any­one might have for doing some­thing this ghastly, there’s the utter implau­si­bil­ity that six dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als — all of them med­ical work­ers — could simul­ta­ne­ously have such an incom­pre­hen­si­ble lapse of char­ac­ter and com­pas­sion as to be will­ing to, in essence, mur­der half a thou­sand boys and girls.

The evi­dence at the time was sketchy (actu­ally nonex­is­tent beyond the cir­cum­stan­tial), and doc­tors not­ing the high rate of hepati­tis B and C infec­tions in the poor kids con­cluded that the well-​​documented hygiene lapses in the hos­pi­tal were actu­ally the cause of the virus’s spread. In most nations, this would be enough to exon­er­ate any­one; but then, in most nations, med­ical prac­ti­tion­ers would not have been accused of such crimes in the first place.

The nurses and doc­tor were found guilty in 2004 and sen­tenced to death; inter­na­tional pres­sure caused the Lybian supreme court to retry the case in 2005. The guilty ver­dict was handed down again; sen­tenc­ing is due the 19th of this month.

Nature mag­a­zine has shown that the HIV strain infect­ing the chil­dren is of the wrong vari­ant to be any­thing but locally-​​grown; yet other evi­dence which could have helped the medics’ case was kept from the trial, so it’s hard to imag­ine that proof will over­turn a dual conviction.

The very nature of the case is extremely hard to under­stand in a nation such as this one, where we the­o­ret­i­cally have pre­sump­tion of inno­cence and the accuser must be the one to pro­vide evi­dence to elim­i­nate rea­son­able doubt as to the guilt of the accused. With this trial it seems much more like the six medics were bur­dened with hav­ing to prove their inno­cence — a much harder propo­si­tion because prov­ing a neg­a­tive is gen­er­ally much more difficult.

Yet, as I think of what’s hap­pen­ing in Gaddafiland, I keep get­ting lit­tle warn­ing lights.

First we have a pros­e­cu­tion that is not only cherry-​​picking evi­dence, but is actively sup­press­ing impor­tant mate­ri­als that could prove excul­pa­tory. One has to won­der if the same kind of sus­pen­sion of legal rights would extend to Lybian cit­i­zens — or if it is merely accused for­eign nation­als who are not given the right to mount a com­plete and earnest defense.

Then there’s the clear con­tempt the Lybian gov­ern­ment seems to have for the facts; there seems to be a sort of head-​​in-​​the-​​sand approach to sci­ence and ratio­nal­ism, a will­ing­ness to be delib­er­atly blind to some data in the name of pur­sung a fore­gone conclusion.

Finally, we have the very mon­strous­ness of the accu­sa­tions. To sug­gest that med­ical work­ers are heart­less child-​​killers — and to have that sug­ges­tion taken seri­ously — is a symp­tom of a deep social sickness.*

On the whole, I have a creep­ing dread that Lybia is as much mir­ror as atroc­ity, some­thing that serves to reflect into us in ways that should damned well make us feel intensely uncomfortable.

Regardless of the out­come for the Tripoli Six — and against all ratio­nal­ity I’m hop­ing for some­thing favor­able — we should pay atten­tion here, and should apply the lessons we’re learn­ing to our own com­port­ment, par­tic­u­larly when we’re deal­ing with accused crim­i­nals who hap­pen to be from for­eign lands.

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* I cer­tainly can’t think of any group in the US which accuses, in all seri­ous­ness, doc­tors and nurses of being child-​​killers. Can you?

Hat tip to PZ Meyers.

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