Heated debate over Libyan HIV kids

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

For the first time since his release in 2007, the Palestinian doctor who was accused of infecting Libyan children with HIV talked to his alleged victims. RNW’s radio programme “’Aynun ‘ala Libya” (“An eye on Libya”) connected Dr Ashraf El-Hojouj and Ramadan al-Faytouri, who lost his little sister to the deadly disease.

“Criminal! You should be behind bars!” was Ramadan al-Faytouri’s first reaction to the Palestinian doctor’s story. RNW mediator Karima Idrissi and her Libyan counterpart Ahmad Lemqasbi from Radio Benghazi FM tried to calm down the parties, and were grateful that there was a phone line separating them.

Arab speakers can listen to the programme here

Political trial
In 1997, there was a massive outbreak of HIV in Benghazi’s El-Fatih Children’s hospital. More cases occurred in the years after. In total, 426 children and 18 mothers were infected with the deadly virus. “We buried the 73rd victim last week,” Ramadan al-Faytouri tells RNW. “A little girl named Aisha Zeyyeni. Her mother had died earlier.”

Doctor El-Hojouj and five Bulgarian nurses working in the same hospital were accused of deliberately infecting the children. Following a highly politicised trial, a Libyan court sentenced the medics to death in 2004. The death sentence was upheld on appeal but eventually commuted to life imprisonment by the Libyan Supreme Court in 2007. Following the intervention of Nicolas Sarkozy, the then-president of France, the medics were then extradited to Bulgaria and released.

‘15 years of injustice’
“For 15 years, they have done me wrong,” says El-Hojouj. “I was always devoted to the children; I worked in Benghazi with all my love. Everyone knows that we are innocent and that the case was fabricated.” He was tortured in prison, his ill-treatment was later confirmed by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. A court in The Hague recently ordered  members of the former regime to pay the Palestinian compensation for his suffering.

“Not only did I spend eight and a half years in prison for a crime I had nothing to do with, the Libyans still accuse me,” says El-Hojouj. “My family members have been threatened as well.” He and his family, who had been living in Libya for more than 30 years, are now refugees in the Netherlands.

Emotional reactions
Many people in Benghazi still question the Palestinian doctor’s innocence. Al-Faytouri, who represents a victims’ organisation in Benghazi, agrees that Gaddafi was not to be trusted but claims the trials leave no doubt about the doctors’ role. “There are witnesses and videos to prove he is guilty.” And a victim’s father who was separately interviewed in Benghazi suspects that El-Hojouj may have been “part of the theatre play by Gaddafi” himself.

The accusations led to emotional reactions from both El-Hojouj and his father, who was also present in RNW’s studio. “Let them re-open the case,” says father Ahmad El-Hojouj. “If a just and impartial court finds my son guilty, I invite the Libyan people to stone him at Tripoli’s central square.”

It is the one thing both parties agree upon: the case should be reopened and thoroughly investigated to find the truth about the world’s largest documented outbreak of HIV. “We want to know the full story and who’s behind it,” says Al-Faytouri, “for the sake of Benghazi’s children”.

Click here to listen to an English language interview with Doctor El-Hojouj first broadcast in 2011.