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.
* 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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