Thursday, March 15, 2007

This week's Europe.view column
is about the Bulgarian nurses


Shame Qaddafi, free the nurses
Mar 15th 2007

Bulgarians can use democracy to counter blackmail

LIBYA'S long imprisonment of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor is scandalous both for the arbitrary suffering imposed on the six victims and for the feebleness of the outside world’s response. The charges are preposterous, the conditions of detention have been hideous, the whole affair is a piece of Libyan political blackmail. Yet the European Union says it “respect[s] the independence of the Libyan courts”—literally, an incredible statement.

The six were arrested on March 7th 1999 on the charge of deliberately infecting 426 children in a Benghazi hospital with HIV, a virus which causes AIDS. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, said that the infections were part of a plot by the CIA or Mossad. The story was pushed hard by the state propaganda machine and is still widely believed in Libya.

A report by two outside scientists, Luc Montagnier (a discoverer of HIV) and Vittorio Colizzi, has overturned the deliberate infection theory. By far the most likely explanation for the AIDS outbreak was poor hospital hygiene.

In their eight years of detention the “Benghazi six” have been abominably treated, with both psychological and physical torture. They were sentenced to death by firing squad on May 6th 2004. The sentence has not yet been carried out.

Bulgaria has tried hard to make the scandal an international issue, and has also raised money to help the AIDS-infected children. But Libya appears to want to do a deal, involving freedom for the Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted of organising the Lockerbie bombing, and payment of $2.7 billion in compensation—the exact amount paid by Libya to the victims of that outrage. The argument amounts to: “You release a justly convicted Libyan, and we will free six unjustly convicted foreigners.”

Amazingly, much of the rest of the world, including many African and Arab countries—and even some European politicians—seems to agree with Libya’s attempt to link the issues. The African Union and Arab League have called for the issue not to be “politicised”. And in that shameful impasse, the nurses are stuck.

Bulgarian public opinion, and the country’s politicians, are solidly behind them. But what more can be done to raise the political pressure for their freedom? An ingenious and commendable suggestion comes from Georgi Gotev, a Bulgarian journalist.

On May 20th Bulgaria votes for 18 members of the European Parliament. The likely outcome is that six or seven will be elected from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, five or six from “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria” (a new centrist party), two or three from the Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and two or three from the far-right Ataka party.

Mr Gotev suggests that the big parties each adopt two nurses as their top candidates, and the Turkish party takes the fifth. The choice would be random. The nurses’ freedom, not their politics, is the issue.

This will demand a modest sacrifice on the part of five Bulgarian political insiders who would otherwise have boarded the gravy train that shuttles between Brussels and Strasbourg. But it will catapult the scandal of the imprisoned nurses into the heart of Europe’s political institutions, and demonstrate an excellent non-partisan spirit in Bulgarian politics (not always known for its sober pursuit of the national interest).

Bulgarian politicians, and voters, should co-operate.

The nurses' names are Kristiyana Valtcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka, and Snezhana Dimitrova. The Palestinian doctor is Ashraf al-Hajuj. They can be forgiven for knowing and caring little about the European Parliament after eight years of in prison. But it is high time the parliament started knowing and caring a great deal more about them.


uswave said...
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val pop said...

The idea is noble and clever, but what is the support within the parties for it? Are those candidates willing to give up their seats and make this humanitarian gesture?
I'm sorry for my skepticism, but in the neighboring Romania, European elections have just been postponed for no real reason, just the fear of the liberals and socialists of being punished by the voters and given less mandates then they currently hold.
That said, if the Bulgarian politicians will show such maturity and selflessness,it would be a great lesson, for both newcomers and old member states.

val pop said...

The Election Committee in Sofia just buried the idea with the nurses. Strange law they have there, not allowing non-residents to vote in European elections:
"Speaking at their first press conference, the officials from the Central Election Committee explained that the newly accepted MEP laws wouldn't even allow them to vote in those elections, let alone be nominees. Meanwhile citizens from Bulgaria's seaside city of Varna started gathering signatures in support of nominating the five Libya-jailed Bulgarian nurses as MEP candidates.
The law states that only Bulgarians who have lived in the country or in a EU member state in the three months prior to the election would be able to vote.
Another requirement is that at least five initiative committees should be formed to nominate each of the nurses."