Seanad debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2005

7:00 pm

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Many Bulgarian nurses work abroad. Bulgaria is a poor country and they go abroad to earn money to send home to their families. In particular, they travel to the Middle East and north Africa.

I wish to refer to what was initially a group of about 40 nurses who worked in the children's hospital in Benghazi, Libya. In February 1999, they were arrested and charged with intentionally infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. It was never made clear to me or to anyone, and I have asked the Libyan ambassador to the European Union in Brussels about the matter, why anyone would want to deliberately infect children with HIV. Eventually the group held under arrest was reduced to five nurses and a Palestinian doctor and these unfortunate people have either been in jail or under house arrest since 1999. Some claim to have been treated very badly while they were in prison. Indeed, two of them claim to have been raped but the people who were accused were acquitted of any wrongdoing.

International medical experts have testified that the Benghazi HIV outbreak began two years before the foreign nurses and doctor were employed. As we know, HIV outbreaks have occurred in most parts of the world and poor hygiene and lack of knowledge of risks are the most frequent causes. It was felt in this case that the use of unsterilised needles and HIV contaminated blood transfusions were important in Benghazi, as elsewhere. When I met the Libyan ambassador to the EU, I pointed out that we had similar problems here. They have occurred everywhere. Some 40 children have died and their parents, as well as public opinion in Libya, must be placated. It seems the cases against these nurses and doctor are the required sacrifice.

The accused have been through the legal system and have been sentenced to death. Their final appeal against this sentence took place on 15 November but a decision has been postponed until 31 January 2006. It is claimed that some of the accused gave confessions under torture, an action that was taken to aid the prosecution case. President Gaddafi has said that if confessions were procured under torture, that evidence would not be admissible. He will not intervene in the case, however, saying that the courts must decide. The suggestion has been made that $3 billion in compensation should be paid to the relatives of those who died in the outbreak, a similar sum to that given by Libya to the relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. This cannot be agreed, however, because it would be an admission that the nurses and doctor deliberately infected the children, which they did not.

The Bulgarian Government did not initially seek publicity because it believed a quiet approach to the Libyan Government was the best option. However, it is now desperate for help. The Irish Government has been helpful in the past and the EU and United States Government have spoken out. I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to take any action he can to aid the relief of these people. An imaginative solution is needed. I have asked members of Sinn Féin who have had relationships with Libya if they can do anything. The situation is so desperate that we must all consider any action that can be taken. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, will convey this message to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Síle de Valera (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The Government fully shares the concern of Senators for the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical workers who have been imprisoned in Libya for more than six years and under sentence of death for the past 18 months. I assure the House that the Government has expressed its concern directly to the Libyan Government and has been active in maintaining attention on the issue at EU level. We continue to be very supportive of Bulgaria's efforts to impress on Libya the urgency of a positive outcome to the case.

The Government welcomes the continuing interest of Members in the situation of the medical workers. I understand the Bulgarian ambassador held a useful meeting on the case with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this year. There had been a real sense of hope that the Libyan Supreme Court would act to resolve the issue by granting the appeal against conviction of the medical workers. A decision on the appeal was expected last week, on 15 November. Instead, however, the court postponed its judgment for the second time, until 31 January 2006. It is appropriate therefore that we now signal clearly our continuing strong concerns about this case.

In May 2004, after five years' imprisonment, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were convicted of deliberately infecting 400 children in Benghazi hospital with HIV. Based on the reports of the trial by EU observers, the Government and our partners in the EU took the clear view that the conduct of the trial was unfair and that the convictions were unwarranted by the evidence. Libyan medical staff accused of the same offence, and the Libyan police accused of obtaining confessions by torture, have been acquitted or had their cases dropped.

The infection of the children in hospital is an appalling tragedy that has naturally caused outrage among the Libyan public. Qualified international experts testified at the trial, however, that the infections were caused by faulty and unhygienic practices at the hospital. They also testified that, in many cases, the infection had occurred before the convicted staff had even arrived in Libya. The Government's view is absolutely clear, therefore, that the convictions should be set aside and the prisoners released.

This view was conveyed in the strongest terms to the Libyan Foreign Minister by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, at a Euro-Mediterranean meeting in Dublin in May 2004, during Ireland's EU Presidency. He spoke to the Minister on the day the verdict and sentences were pronounced. Following the conviction, I understand the physical conditions of detention of the prisoners have improved somewhat. However, they are now in their seventh year of detention and are under sentence of death. There are very serious concerns about their psychological health.

As the appeal process has unfolded, Ireland has actively supported Bulgaria's requests for EU assistance in resolving this matter. The EU has stated firmly, in Council statements and in direct approaches to the Libyan authorities, that the convictions were unsound and should be reversed. The EU has also specifically stated that a positive resolution of this issue will be an important factor in permitting an overall improvement in EU-Libya relations, a development both sides wish to achieve.

The Government will continue to maintain attention on this important issue. It was discussed most recently at the General Affairs and External Relations Council, which the Minister for Foreign Affairs attended in Brussels on 21 November. We are convinced that, building on our bilateral protest, common EU action is the best way to proceed. Bulgaria has advised us that the Libyan Court of Appeal has adopted a new procedure and will allow a new hearing of the case at the end of January. Bulgaria is hopeful this may prove a positive development. The Government naturally shares this hope and will continue to follow the situation closely in co-operation with the Bulgarian authorities and our EU partners.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for her reply. Given that Ireland always had so many people working abroad, we should have particular sympathy for those in this situation.