Doctor in Libyan HIV trial now languishes in Dutch town

Bulgarian nurses Nasya Nenova (l.) and Valentina Siropoulo wait for the verdict with Palestinian doctor Ashraf El Hagog during their 2006 retrial.
By Sheila Kamerman and Jannetje Koelewijn

Ashraf el Hagog was at the centre of the Libyan Aids scandal, in which he and five Bulgarian nurses were accused of deliberately infecting 426 babies with HIV. Now he is unemployed and living with his parents in the Dutch town of Woerden.

The day Ashraf el Hagog (1969) was released from a Libyan prison the whole world wanted to be seen with him. When he and the five Bulgarian nurses were flown to Sofia on July 24, 2007, they were accompanied by presidents, ambassadors and other important people. The Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi had buckled under the pressure from the European Union and France - and the promise of 426 million dollars - and everybody wanted to share in this diplomatic success story.

"During that rush of freedom I heard a thousand promises about how wonderful the future was going to be," El Hagog said during a recent interview at his parents' house in Woerden, a town of 50,000 in the central Netherlands where he now lives - unemployed and without prospects. His mother served tea wearing a yellow headscarf. She didn't always wear one, but she swore she would never take it off again if her son was released.

Scapegoat

The whole world knew the accusations against El Hagog were false. Western Aids experts in 2006 wrote in Nature magazine that the HIV epidemic at the al-Fateh pediatric hospital in Benghazi must have started before El Hagog and the nurses came to work at the hospital. But Gaddafi needed scapegoats, and he chose non-Libyans.

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El Hagog is Palestinian; his parents fled to Libya from Gaza in 1956. He was working as a doctor in training at the hospital when police picked him up for interrogation in 1998. "They wanted to know everything about the hospital, colleagues, the infection. I said I didn't know anything about it or I would have reported it. I wasn't worried."

After three days they let him go, but on January 29, 1999 he was arrested together with the five Bulgarian nurses. His mother was sacked from her job, and his sisters were expelled from university. The family left Libya for the Netherlands in December 2005, where they were given political asylum.

Tortured

By then El Hagog and the five nurses had been convicted of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV. They were sentenced to death by firing squad in 2004. A retrial in 2006 confirmed the verdict. In 2007 the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment.

El Hagog confessed, but only after spending months in solitary confinement in a dark, cold cell, which he was allowed to leave only to be tortured. He suffered electric shocks while lying naked on a steel bed, was sodomised, had to watch the nurses being raped. There was fire, water, dogs and threats his sisters would be arrested and raped too.

After his release, El Hagog was given Bulgarian nationality because as a stateless Palestinian he would have been left out of the deal with Libya. His parents and sisters are recognised refugees in the Netherlands and will receive Dutch citizenship. As a Bulgaria, El Hagog is allowed to reside in the Netherlands, but he can only work 10 hours a week and he is not allowed to study.

A normal life

His lawyer Flip Schüller last year tried to get him permanent residency in the Netherlands on humanitarian grounds. But deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak turned him down. He was free to go to Bulgaria, she said, his life was not in danger there. Technically she is right, said Schüller, "but sometimes compassion should take precedence over the law."

Two and a half years after his release El Hagog feels abandoned. All he wants is a normal life, he said. "I want a job, I want a family. I'm not asking much, just a residence permit in the Netherlands so I can study or work here. There is nothing for me in Bulgaria."

That wasn't always the case. A couple of days after his release El Hagog was introduced to a Bulgarian woman who had seen him on TV and said she had fallen in love with him. "I thought I was in love too. With hindsight I think after eight years in prison I was probably unable to interpret my feelings correctly. I wanted to have a normal life as soon as possible."

Going after Libya

They got married. They had an apartment in the centre of Sofia. He worked as a house painter and cleaner. They had a son who is now a year and a half. But soon the marriage was on the rocks. "I tried," he said. "Every other day I would bring her something, even if it was just a rose. Perhaps she thought I would be getting millions in damages." He filed for divorce and returned to Woerden.

In Woerden he had given a press conference two weeks after his release, in front of a packed room of national and international media. In his dark suit with a pink shirt and tie, he came across as combative and apparently unaffected by his ordeal. He swore he wouldn't rest until his name was cleared; he promised he would take legal action against Libya.

He waited a year before doing so. The Netherlands, Bulgaria and the EU all asked him not to file charges; it could endanger their frail new relationship with the Libyan dictator. In early 2008 lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld filed charges with the United Nations on El Hagog's behalf. He accused Libya of torture, an unfair trial, unlawful detention. He asked for rehabilitation and damages. The Bulgarian nurses followed his example late last year.

"I had no other choice," said El Hagog. "My life is ruined. I feel those responsible must be punished." If the complaint is declared admissible the UN's human rights council can sentence Libya to paying damages.

Zegveld also represents the Bulgarian nurses. "Ashraf and the five women have been tortured severely and at length. They spent eight years in prison without reason. The evidence is clear. Libya is in violation of all the human rights conventions: it must pay damages," she said. "But it will take international pressure. I expect the EU and the Netherlands to do what is necessary. It is their duty. This case didn't end with their release; it is only just beginning."

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