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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Medics case highlights Libyan reform
By Gerald Butt
Regional analyst

The decision by Libya's High Judicial Council to lift the death sentences imposed on the six foreign defendants in the HIV medics case removes a cloud that has been hanging over the country for the past eight years.

Muammar Gaddafi
Muammar Gaddafi: Architect and enforcer of the system
It also represents a further step in the country's return to the ranks of the international community. The case has been widely regarded as a hangover from the old Libya, from the era before its diplomatic isolation had ended.

Libya's progress along the path back to international respectability thus far has been patchy: spectacularly fast on the international diplomatic and economic track, but painfully slow on the domestic one.

Viewed from the outside, Libya has changed beyond recognition since the end of 2003. In December that year, while the Western powers in Iraq were searching for Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Muammar Gaddafi announced that Libya was abandoning its own weapons programme.

Since then, with the lifting of sanctions, Libya has experienced an economic boom, with oil companies from around the world queuing up to win concessions. An IMF report on Libya says the country "has undertaken comprehensive structural reforms and accelerated the transition to a market economy".

But as international business executives flock to Libya, seeking a share of the vast potential wealth there, Libyans are wondering when they will benefit from the miraculous transformation of their country on the global stage.

Obstacle cleared

The international community's welcoming of Colonel Gaddafi's external policy changes and its eagerness to tap Libya's vast oil reserves have led it to turn a blind eye to the slow progress towards internal reform. Libya remains a closed dictatorship, with executive power nominally in the hands of unwieldy peoples' committees.

The judicial system has not escaped untouched from the pervasive influence of the ruling system. All six defendants in the medics' case say they were tortured in captivity, and the handling of the whole case has been widely condemned around the world.

Condemned Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor
The HIV medics case put the Libyan legal system under scrutiny
The dropping of the death sentences, following an agreement on compensation terms for the victims, will certainly not signal a major overnight change in daily life for Libyans. A radical reformation is hard to imagine while Colonel Gaddafi, the architect and enforcer of the current system, remains in power.

But the partial resolution of the case clears an important obstacle in the way of Libya's rehabilitation.

From the perspective, too, of Western countries that have been lobbying for the normalisation of ties with Tripoli, there will be relief that the potentially most damaging part of this embarrassing episode is over. European Union states, in particular, stand to benefit more than others from the expected economic boom in Libya.

The EU was at the forefront of efforts to secure a compensation deal that would enable the death sentence on the five Bulgarians and one Palestinian to be lifted. It will continue to press Tripoli to allow the six prisoners to leave Libya.

Unanswered question

For his part, Colonel Gaddafi clearly felt that the moment had come when adverse international attention on his country over the medics' case was in danger of sabotaging the progress being made on the diplomatic and economic fronts.

But why the Libyan leader declined to use his authoritarian position to bring this awkward eight-year-long saga to a close at a much earlier stage is a question that will probably never be answered.

The result of the compensation deal is that the spotlight of global attention will gradually shift away from Libya. But the fear of many Libyans is that the curtain will once again be drawn over the eccentric ruling system that for decades has denied them an effective voice in government and basic human rights.

Giving Libya's international image a facelift presented few problems. But dragging its arcane political system, with its deadening influence on all aspects of society, into the 21st Century looks like being a much harder task.

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