In June 2004, I went to Tripoli with Canadian champion Pascal Charbonneau to watch him represent his country in the world chess championship. At that time the United States did not have diplomatic with Libya, and the United States Chess Federation had discouraged American players from participating. I attended anyway because I really wanted to witness a world championship for King’s Gambit and the tournament organizers were trying to arrange for me to play chess with Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi, who was funding the 64-player knockout championship with $1.5 million of his personal assets.
But my visit turned into a nightmare after I was detained and interrogated repeatedly because they suspected that I was a CIA agent who might fire a poison dart at Gadhafi. A month before I arrived, a Libyan “court” had imposed a death sentence on five Bulgarian nurses who had come to the health-care-impoverished country as idealists eager to help save lives but ended up framed for infecting 400 children with HIV-tainted blood. During my detention, the possible imminent execution of the medics was big news, and was very disturbing to me because I, too, did not want to be made an example of by the Libyan “court” system.
Fast forward to this past week, when I was out of the loop on international news because I was in the jungle in Costa Rica: the six nurses, after extensive appeals by many European heads of states, were finally set free. They had been imprisoned since 1999 and under a death sentence for the past three years.