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28. Free at Last: Medical Workers Released in Libya

By John Bohannon
Dec 21, 2007 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:34 AM


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In the early morning hours of July 24, 2007, six foreign medical workers walked out of death row in the African country of Libya and boarded a plane to freedom. Their departure marked the end of a long nightmare for the medics, arrested in 1999 by the Libyan police and later charged with deliberately starting an outbreak of AIDS at a children’s hospital. They confessed under torture, they say, and were sentenced to death by firing squad.

The freeing of the Tripoli Six, as they came to be called, was also an extraordinary victory for science. Small groups of researchers worldwide had worked tirelessly to prove the medics’ innocence. Among them were biologists at the University of Oxford who analyzed the DNA sequences of the viruses in the blood of the infected Libyan children. Using those genetic data as a molecular clock, they proved that the HIV outbreak began long before the accused medics even started working at the hospital. Their results bolstered the growing international movement to free them.

Only weeks before the scheduled execution, Richard Roberts, a Nobel prize–winning molecular biologist at New England Biolabs in Massachusetts, flew to Libya to meet with Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, who is widely expected to succeed Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. Roberts stressed the potential for scientific and technological collaboration with the rest of the world if Libya did “the responsible thing.”

The Libyan leader, anxious to modernize his country’s scientific resources, apparently set the wheels in motion. The international community also paid millions of dollars to help treat the Libyan children infected with HIV. Shortly after the medics were released, al-Islam announced an ambitious plan to safeguard Libya’s archaeological sites and protect its coastal ecology—efforts on which scientists worldwide are being asked to collaborate. If ever there could be a happy scientific ending, this is it.

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