In 2006, Libya was the scene of the re-trial of the foreign medics who were all accused of deliberately infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV. Mike Hersee of HEAL London was invited to assist the defence with the trial. Sadly, it didn't work out as intended. I wrote an article about the experience that was first published in Hot Wild and Free (http://www.hot-wild-and-free.co.uk/), and you can reach that version by selecting the link, then selecting archives, then select the CONFLICTED issue (no 2), then select 'Liberated in Libya?'
The article was understandably edited, and in particular some technical details were left out. Below is the original article as submitted.
Libya, the HIV infected children, and the foreign medics - what really happened?
It was October 2006. The foreign medics - five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian trainee Doctor - were on trial again for deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV in Libya, and if convicted again were potentially facing the death penalty, again. The day before the last day of the trial, how did I, a bus driver from Luton, come to find myself in the office of the defence lawyers, discussing strategy of the case the night before the most crucial day for the defence?
I have always been interested in disasters, and in particular the human causes - the sociology of man-made disasters, if you like. And I'd particularly got interested in AIDS when I began to come across information that suggested we weren't being entirely told the whole truth - credible stories from reliable sources about HIV tests reverting to negative for instance. People who lived long without taking AIDS drugs. With my natural tendency to keep digging until I get to the bottom of things, I discovered a can of worms larger than God receiving a bulk delivery from Worms-R-Us on day five of his earth-creation project.
Through educating myself over time and corresponding with experts I eventually found myself to be surprisingly knowledgeable compared even to some orthodox experts. The key point in this legal trial that attracted my attention was when I realised that the children who had been diagnosed HIV positive were going to be treated with the conventional AIDS medications, and that concerned me as I knew it would inevitably become mass slaughter of innocents. So I tracked down - a non-trivial task - the main defence lawyer, Othman Bezanti. Over the phone one day in 2006 I gave him an outline of what was wrong.
He wanted written details, so I summarised it in a long email. I followed it up, and he came back with some challenges, such as, "Luc Montagnier is a very big name", a previous defence witness who had claimed the strain of HIV the children had was around before the nurses were. I sat down and wrote out a substantial explanation of what was going on in this case. I started gathering additional documentation relevant to this particular case and getting some DVD's ready of documentaries others had already produced.
Additionally I needed some expert witnesses should they be called to give evidence, and that was the easy part. I didn't yet know that foreign AIDS experts were not allowed to participate in this trial. Conversations with the lawyer and his son Husam, also a lawyer on the case, continued and we became very friendly. I sent the DVD's over. They watched them and then said, "Please come to Libya - We'll pay for the hotel". I said, "Oh, all right then". Well, the case was an international death-penalty case, had aroused the attention of the EU, comments from the US president and the interest of many Arab and African nations. If the main defence lawyer says, "Please come and help", what else can you say?
Getting to Libya is non-trivial. You have to apply for a visa to Libya... from inside Libya. This apparent double-bind is solved by someone within Libya who has to apply on your behalf, which the lawyers did. But that was taking ages to arrive. In the meantime they sent me an English version of the Libyan National Experts Committee report on the evidence against the medics. Reading that, I could see why outside experts were not allowed in this case - Luc Montagnier and his colleagues had made a complete hash of it. But then so had the Libyan experts themselves, as they were all operating under the same fundamental misapprehensions: They were assuming that HIV tests are reliable and they believed that claims about ‘specific strains of HIV' really withstand scrutiny. I found it surprising how easy it was for me to write a highly referenced dismantling of such a key piece of evidence.
What people had failed to notice, despite a substantial amount of evidence published in established medical literature, is that a wide variety of vaccinations are one of the most widespread factors that can push someone's antibody level over the arbitrary threshold that is called HIV positive. In fact, there are over 60 different things already documented that may trigger repeated false positives. And the medics were accused of infecting the children via the vaccinations themselves - no-one thought to check if vaccinations can do that by themselves. Additionally, the claims of specific strains of virus being found only appear robust until you start examining them more closely.
Time was running out. The trial was progressing and in the end I was not able to complete my rebuttal of the Experts Committee report, but I sent what I had done as an incomplete draft. Due to the delays in getting my visa I finally made it the day before the main day of defence evidence, and was taken from the airport straight into a meeting with the lawyers, including the President of Advocates San Frontieres.
Given only one day for the proper defence, my report was apparently too big - they wanted something that could fit on one sheet of A4. "That isn't going to work", I said, "It's like undermining someone's religion. You can't do it with just one sheet of A4. You need to undermine the foundations of all the separate beliefs they have". Unfortunately although their spoken English was good, they had struggled with my written English and there were apparently a lack of suitable translators for what I had sent them to translate into Arabic.
Although the lawyers had watched the DVD's I'd sent over, there is so much to take in that it is a separate task in itself. It is understandably difficult to take in all that science, ranging from molecular biology, through virology, to epidemiology, in a language that is not even your own, in order to be able to challenge the orthodox perspective. Their questions showed they still had a lot to learn. Unfortunately, we'd run out of time to spend time with their main scientific defence witness, Dr Salem Al-Agili, who teaches virology at the Tripoli University and is regarded as an expert on AIDS. However, the lawyers had their eye on the appeal already.
Sadly, the security was now so tight they had been unable to get a pass for me for the court, so I was unable to witness the Libyan judicial system in action. I was subsequently shown a video of one of the previous days, and I have to say it seemed more like a verbal punch up between lawyers and judges - with the witness then on the stand collapsing apparently under the stress and confusion of the situation. What struck me though was a clue to some interesting aspects of Libyan culture: A Libyan court doesn't have a jury, but it has five judges, and in this case the senior judge was a woman, about which there was no apparent issue - an unexpected but revealing clue of an egalitarian streak in a culture that is otherwise highly sex-segregated, as visits to people's homes revealed.
The trial itself over, there was going to be a delay before the judgement was announced so the only thing to do was enjoy Tripoli as the guest of the lawyers, and prepare for a meeting with Dr Al-Agili, as preparation for the probable appeal.
Last chance for making a difference
We eventually had our meeting crammed into the back room of his high-street pharmacy, the walls overflowing with products to treat what seemed like an infinite number of ailments, and his table stacked high with freebies and literature he'd just recently brought back from the AIDS conference in Toronto. It is always difficult to challenge an expert on their own territory, and I knew this was at the very least going to be tough. But what stunned me was how easy it was to find his weak points, or rather the weak points in his arguments. He seemed to be unaware of the significant differences in definitions of AIDS around the world for example. He seemed to think that pictures of cell cultures showing particles ‘budding' (which ordinary cells can do too) was necessarily genuine photographic evidence of HIV and didn't understand why it isn't .
I knew I had him on the rack when he claimed that HIV tests are reliable though. I brought out a couple of HIV test leaflets to show what they actually say. To my surprise he recoiled and wouldn't even touch them, as if he'd be ‘infected' by what they say - almost as if what they said was poisonous to touch, so I read out a few choice sentences - "...pregnancy and other non-specific cross reactions...", "...should use additional and more specific tests...", "...presumed to be infected...", "...no scientific agreement...", "....This test cannot be used to confirm the presence of HIV...", and so on. "I believe you", he said, "and yes, we do get false positives, but in any case we check for the virus itself". "How do you do that?", I asked knowing that whatever he said was going to be challengeable. "We check for P24", he said. "That's not specific", I said. "Plenty of dogs have got P24. In fact none of the proteins have ever been proved to come from HIV, and all of them have been shown to be non-specific". He disagreed.
We tussled backwards and forwards over different things. I felt I had won that battle, but in truth I had lost the war. It was clear while our debate was going on that, being the only Libyan scientific witness for the defence, Othman Bezanti was keen to keep Dr Al-Agili on side. I can imagine how annoyed the University's chief virologist and AIDS expert must have been to be challenged by some foreign bus driver with no medical credentials about his own specialist subject - in his own pharmacy too! Dr Al-Agili's cooperation needed to be maintained for the defence, so it was me that realised it was time to let go of my attempts to persuade him of a different perspective. After the meeting ended Husam and Ali, two of the lawyers, took me out to eat to cheer me up, but I felt as though my hope of influencing at that critical juncture, not just the outcome of this trial for both the medics and the children, but also people's perception of AIDS science round the world, was dashed for now.
The next day, after a brief visit to the internet café, I showed two peer-reviewed published scientific papers to the lawyers that demonstrated I'd been right about the proteins, including P24, and he'd been wrong, but it made no difference what the lawyers thought. They could only use the experts they were allowed to use, and my chosen, Arabic-speaking medical expert who has never lost a legal case was languishing in California.
The Libyan experience
I had a great time in Tripoli. For a capital city of around a million people it's very friendly city. My hosts were incredibly busy, but Husam Bezanti and his friends were generous with their time. Spending time sitting round the camp fire on their farm, listening to their guitar playing and singing and riding their horses was wonderful. Being invited into people's homes was a privilege that is not always afforded visitors to the country, a cultural thing, so I was honoured to have three invites to different homes in one week. I was told I could regard it as having a second home there. It was a powerful reminder that you can't judge the people of a country by the reputation of their imposed leader, and I felt embarrassed at some of the things that had been done in the past that adversely affected the people. A number of years ago I was seeing an American marine from the airbase involved in the bombing of Tripoli, where several Libyan civilians were killed.
In the end, I'd had a wonderful time and made new friends but failed in my ultimate objective. Back home, the ‘guilty - sentenced to death' verdicts were expected when they arrived. I met up with the Bulgarian embassy and established good contacts there too after explaining a number of issues and providing extensive documentation, but by then I was becoming aware that what I'd previously been told by an Al-Jazeera journalist was right - that it was "way beyond the level of scientific truth and all about international politics".
The ongoing tragedy
The unexpectedly sudden release of the medics to Bulgaria after a deal had been agreed caught me by surprise too, as I thought their release may well drag on another couple of years. But while one set of victims are now free, the original set of victims - the children - are still slowly being poisoned to death with toxic and ultimately deadly chemotherapies, based on a diagnosis from a non-specific antibody test and truly spurious claims for genetic analysis of the specific strain of the virus. 56 down so far, 370 children to go.
Mike Hersee has been studying AIDS for 10 years and is a co-founder of HEAL London, an organisation for people who are questioning aspects of what they've been told about HIV and AIDS - www.heallondon.org.
 http://www.rethinkingaids.com/portals/0/documentlibrary/Parleurop.Dec%208.pdf - text version of presentation to the European Parliament's conference on AIDS in Africa 2003 by Etienne de Harven, Emeritus Professor of pathology, Toronto University