A former senior British intelligence officer turned BP adviser has been helping negotiate a delicate deal with Libya over the fate of six medics detained there – a case that could be resolved before the end of the month.
Sir Mark Allen, who played a central role in the talks that led to Libya’s 2003 decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction, joined the energy group as special adviser in 2005. BP last month announced a £450m ($900m, €665m) exploration deal with the Libyan government, consolidating Tripoli’s gradual rehabilitation in the international community.
A key issue still casting a shadow over Libya’s political and business relations with the west, however, is the fate of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor detained in Libya. The medics were sentenced to death in December for allegedly infecting more than 400 children with the HIV virus in 1998 and have been detained since 1999.
A series of international experts have maintained that the infections were caused by pre-existing hygiene problems at the hospital in the town of Benghazi rather than deliberate action by the medics.
The UK, which began negotiations with Libya over the medics case in 2005, and Germany are hoping for a breakthrough as early as next week – before Tony Blair steps down as British prime minister on June 27 and Berlin hands over the presidency of the European Union on June 30.
The Bulgarian foreign ministry said late yesterday that Libya’s supreme court will hear an appeal from the medics on Wednesday.
Mr Blair has twice visited Col Muammer Gadaffi, Libya’s leader. Sir Mark, meanwhile, has mediated between the Libyans and the Bulgarians.
Diplomats say that a final deal to get the six out of Libya, if agreed, will involve a package offer, including a “humanitarian gesture” for the families of the affected children as well as economic incentives for Libya such as debt relief.
The families would agree to have the medics’ sentence commuted and for them to either be set free or to serve the remainder of their jail term in Bulgaria – a decision that would have to be endorsed by Libyan courts.
The package offer was delivered by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, on a visit to Libya this week. The international humanitarian fund in the package would improve conditions in the Benghazi clinic, as well as aiding the families of the victims and supporting continued treatment of those infected in European hospitals.
The fund would be administered by an international board and would be open to contributions from all parties – including the US, the EU, Bulgaria and Libya itself.
Libya indicated in the past that it would consider exchanging the six medics for Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan national serving a life sentence in a Scottish jail for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
British officials insist that Mr Megrahi is not linked to the negotiations over the nurses, arguing that any decision over his fate has to be agreed by Scottish authorities. But they note that Mr Megrahi’s case is being reviewed and do not exclude the possibility that he would eventually be sent back to Libya. The UK and Libya agreed last month to begin negotiations on judicial co-operation, including prisoner transfers.
Saad Djebbar, a London-based lawyer who has worked with the Libyans on the Lockerbie case, said a resolution of the nurses case, while not tied to the fate of Mr Megrahi, “could pave the way for better prospects in the future in the Meghrahi case”.
Additional reporting by Jimmy Burns and Christopher Adams in London