New evidence in Libya death penalty case

New molecular evidence, published online by Nature this week, sheds significant doubt on the charges against six medical workers facing the death penalty in Libya. They are charged with deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998.


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VOL.444 NO.7120 DATED 07 DECEMBER 2006

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New evidence in Libya death penalty case (AOP) DOI: 10.1038/nature44836a

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 06 December at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern time (which is also when the embargo lifts) as part of our AOP (ahead of print) programme. Although we have included it on this release to avoid multiple mailings it will not appear in print on 07 December, but at a later date.***

New molecular evidence, published online by Nature this week, sheds significant doubt on the charges against six medical workers facing the death penalty in Libya. They are charged with deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998.

An international team has used the genetic sequences of the viruses isolated from the patients to reconstruct the exact history, or "family tree" of the outbreak. Analysing mutations that accumulate over time has allowed the researchers to work out when different events occurred. The Brief Communication shows that the subtype of HIV involved began infecting patients well before the medical workers arrived in Libya in 1998.

The trial of the six ended in Tripoli on 4 November, and a verdict is expected on 19 December. A body of scientific evidence already indicates that the outbreak was caused not by deliberate transmission, but by poor hospital hygiene. These results, by Oliver G. Pybus and colleagues, provide the first independent molecular confirmation.

An accompanying news article from Nature discusses the case and how important this new evidence could be. Phylogenetic HIV analyses have been used in court cases worldwide involving allegations of accidental or deliberate HIV infection. Thomas Leitner of Los Alamos National Laboratory has provided forensic HIV evidence in more than 30 such cases over the past 15 years. He describes the Nature paper as "compelling evidence that the outbreak had started before the accused could have started it."


Oliver G. Pybus (Oxford University, UK)
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Published: 06 Dec 2006

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