Libya sentences foreign medics to death

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The Independent Online

A Libyan court today convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor of deliberately infecting 400 children with the HIV virus and sentenced them to death, provoking condemnation from Bulgaria and shouts of joy in Tripoli.

"God is great!" yelled Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, as soon as the presiding judge finished reading the verdict in the Tripoli courtroom. "Long live the Libyan judiciary!"

Bulgaria swiftly condemned the decision, and reiterated its belief that the children were infected by unhygienic conditions in their Benghazi hospital.

"Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak in Benghazi," said Bulgarian parliamentary speaker Georgi Pirinski.

The five Bulgarians and the Palestinian did not react after the judge finished delivering the verdict.

Chief Bulgarian counsel Trayan Markovski told Bulgarian National Radio that the defendants would appeal to the Libyan Supreme Court.

The long trial of the six foreign medical workers has held up the efforts of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to rebuild ties with the West. Europe and the United States had called for the medics' release, indicating that relations with Libya would be affected by today's verdict.

The presiding judge, Mahmoud Hawissa, took only seven minutes to confirm the presence of the accused - who all answered "yes" in Arabic - and read the judgement in the longest and most politicised court process in modern Libyan history.

The six defendants, detained for nearly seven years, had previously been convicted and condemned to death, but Libyan judges granted them a retrial last year after international protests over the fairness of the proceedings.

An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, promptly criticised the retrial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence. Research published this month said samples from the infected children showed their viruses were contracted before the six defendants started working at the hospital in question.

"We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one," Cantier said after the verdict. His colleague, Ivan Paneff, said Lawyers Without Borders had tried to persuade the judges to commission international experts to investigate conditions at the hospital, but "they refused."

Bulgaria's Pirinski made the same point in Sofia, saying: "The court has not taken into account the unquestionable judicial and scientific evidences for the innocence of the medics."

Libyans strongly supported a conviction. Some 50 relatives of the infected children - about 50 of whom have already died of AIDS - waited outside the court early this morning, holding poster-sized pictures of their children and bearing placards that read "Death for the children killers" and "HIV made in Bulgaria."

After the verdict, relatives at the court gates chanted "Execution! Execution!"

In Bulgaria, hundreds of people had staged peaceful protests in support of the five nurses yesterday.

Europe, the United States and international rights groups have accused Libya of prosecuting the six foreign staff as scapegoats for dirty conditions at the Benghazi children's hospital.

Luc Montagnier - the French doctor who was a co-discoverer of HIV - testified in the first trial that the deadly virus was active in the hospital before the Bulgarian nurses began their contracts there in 1998.

More evidence for that argument surfaced on 66 December - too late to be submitted in court - when Nature magazine published an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from the children.

Using changes in the genetic information of HIV over time as a "molecular clock," the analysts concluded that the virus was contracted before the six defendants arrived at the hospital - perhaps even three years before.

Idriss Lagha, the president of a group representing the victims, rejected the Nature article, telling a press conference in London yesterday that the nurses had infected the children with a "genetically engineered" virus. He accused them as doing so for research on behalf of foreign intelligence agencies.

When the defendants were allowed to give evidence last month, they denied intentionally infecting children.

"No doctor or nurse would dare commit such a dreadful crime," said nurse Cristiana Valcheva, adding that she sympathised with the victims and their families.

A second Bulgarian, Valentina Siropulo, testified that of her seven years in Libya, "I've spent only six months working as a nurse and the rest of the time in prison."

Gadhafi, who has been trying to refashion his image from leader of a rogue state, got his government to ask Bulgaria to pay compensation to the children's families.

But Sofia rejected the idea as indicating an admission of the nurses' guilt.