Five years ago today, five Bulgarian nurses and a Bulgarian-Palestinian doctor were repatriated, free, from Tripoli to Sofia. It was a day of relief, after thirty-three months of strenuous negotiations, three successive death sentences pronounced after fake trials, the scars of torture, many promises of liberation, and several failed attempts.
Five years is a long time in politics and Libya has certainly evolved a great deal since 2007. But in light of Libya’s new realities, this anniversary takes on a new significance.
Why? Because one person was in power then and still is now: Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who today heads the National Transitional Council of Libya and is, for all intents and purposes, today's Libyan Head of State, was the Libyan Minister of Justice back in 2007. In his previous position, he was the official who prevented at several times the liberation of the medics.
Let's remind ourselves of the key elements of the "Benghazi Case", as it was called, which ended up in dignity for all parties. Or, better said, in dignity except for one point:
- The six medics were released with no conditions;
- The 450 families of the children infected with HIV/ AIDS in Benghazi were compensated with one million dollars each, paid by the Benghazi International Fund, itself funded by the Libyan Economic and Social Fund, without any "ransom" or "compensation" paid by the European Union or any other government;
- The children of Benghazi were offered first class, long-term treatment under the "Benghazi Action Plan", a medical cooperation scheme funded by the EU with some 12 million euro. This scheme stopped the progression of the disease and restored hope for the families. It also set standards for the (previously unexisting) Libyan HIV policy.
Without going into the many intricacies of the negotiation (of which I happened to be the permanent member on the EU side), let me just say that one issue, one only, was left out of the final settlement: the moral and physical suffering of the six medics. At no point during this long negotiation was it possible for me and the other negotiators to entertain with the Gaddafi regime the issue of compensation for the medics. And indeed the absolute priority was their release.
In today’s context, there is a political meaning to this fifth anniversary: the way in which the new, democratic Libya will face its past will shape her image and her democratic credentials one way or the other.
My point here is a simple one: in order to close the Benghazi Case in dignity and completely, would it not be appropriate for today's Libya to erase this dark episode of its recent past and to apologize and compensate the six medics in the same way and amount the Benghazi families were compensated?
The case has amply demonstrated that the medics were for strictly nothing in the Benghazi infection. Yet, they stayed in prison for eight and a half years, were tortured many times, were condemned to death three times, and suffered an endless parody of justice. All of this has been well documented. For sure, they are free, but they never got one word of apology or any amount of compensation in the name of Libya or from any other source.
Today's Libya is back on the international stage, she has recovered huge frozen assets and relaunched oil and gas production, she is holding elections in dignity, and she is struggling to rebuild herself as an organized society. This Libya has the support of the international community.
This new Libya would win the praise of the international community if she also "officially" erased one of the darkest wrongdoings of the former regime and offered both apology and compensation to the six Bulgarian medics.
And the gesture would be all the more representative of the new Libya if it was decided and offered by Mustafa Abdul Jalil himself. Today is the day to think about this.
Marc Pierini, a former EU career diplomat, has served as the EU Ambassador to Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Morocco.