Libya has slowly been clawing its way back from pariah status to something like respectability and acceptance in the international community.
It took a major step in that direction this week by ending the disgraceful eight-year imprisonment under a death sentence of six foreign health-care workers on the bogus charge of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV.
That culminates a series of steps, including ending support for international terrorism, acknowledging responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, turning over the Libyan agent later found guilty of the bombing, paying reparations to the families and dismantling its nascent nuclear-weapons program.
Libya’s halting attempts to act like a normal nation have already paid off in trade deals, investment in its oil industry, freer travel, increased tourism and, after a hiatus of 27 years, the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Tripoli.
The deal to release five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor was brokered by Britain and Germany and clinched in an impressive display of personal diplomacy by Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of France’s new president.
But their release shouldn’t have required diplomacy, personal or otherwise, and their arrest and imprisonment should never have happened. The government of strongman Moammar Gadhafi never explained why the six would deliberately infect children in their care — a charge believed nowhere outside of Libya — and independent scientists who studied the issue blamed the infections on the unsanitary conditions and practices of Libyan hospitals.
And the deal itself basically amounted to a ransom in the neighborhood of $400 million from the European Union, ostensibly for the children’s care. The face-saver for Gadhafi was that the six would serve their life sentences in Bulgaria, but the Bulgarian government pardoned them immediately upon arrival.
The association of the families of the infected children — and no association exists in Libya without Gadhafi’s approval — reacted angrily, saying, “Western disregard of Muslims’ blood is an indisputable fact,” indicative of deepseated xenophobia in that long-isolated country.
The belated release of the six is welcome, but the arduous efforts needed to win their freedom show that Libya is still a long way from earning international trust.