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At stake in Libyan HIV trial: EU relations

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Yet Qaddafi also appears to have backed himself into a corner. The infection took place at the al-Fatah Hospital in Benghazi, a Mediterranean coastal area and hotbed of dissent toward one of the toughest dictatorships in the world. Casting the spotlight on what foreign observers say is probably the real culprit – the Libyan healthcare system – could trigger public outrage and rattle the regime's foundation.

Meanwhile, the families of the infected children – who are now being treated in Italian and French hospitals – demand justice from those whom Tripoli and the state-controlled Libyan media blame: the foreigners.

"It's very difficult to understand the stance of those in solidarity with the accused," wrote the Al-Shams newspaper recently, according to Reuters. "Who deserves greater reason for solidarity – the children who are dying without having committed any offense, or those in white coats who distributed death and wiped the smile from the lips of hundreds of families?"

The Bulgarian nurses were independent contractors in Libya, continuing a practice begun decades ago when communist Bulgaria sent its medics to ideologically friendly nations, many in the Arab world.

They stand accused of infecting the children in March 1998. But in an academic paper published last week, Nature quoted British evolutionary biologist Oliver Pybus, who asserted after examining young Libyan victims in Rome that the HIV strain derived from West Africa.

"Which makes sense, as Libya has a large population of guest workers from there," Pybus added. The Nature article also said that the virus strain was present in the mid-1990s, well before the Bulgarian nurses arrived.

Since beginning serious negotiations to join the EU in the late 1990s, Bulgaria turned to Brussels for diplomatic assistance in the case.

The campaign on the medics' behalf got a boost in early November, with the signatures of 114 Nobel scientific laureates petitioning for a fair trial involving credible scientific evidence. But the campaign organizer today says he's less optimistic they'll receive one.

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