Libya sentences nurses to death in HIV infection case

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The Independent Online

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were condemned to death in Libya yesterday for deliberately infecting children with HIV.

It was the second time the six had stood trial for the crimes. Their first trial ended with the same verdict in May 2004.

The result was greeted with jubilation by families of the stricken children outside the court, but by dismay in Europe.

"God is great!" cried Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of one of the infected Libyan children, after the verdict. "Long live the Libyan judiciary!"

Relatives of the children held up photographs of them, some with the words, in English, "HIV. Made in Bulgaria". Of the 426 children infected, 52 have died.

But there was grave dismay in Europe about what was seen as a second fundamentally flawed trial. In the first trial, Luc Montagnier, the French doctor who was the joint discoverer of HIV, testified that the virus was active in the hospital before the Bulgarians arrived in 1998 and was probably caused by poor hygiene. The evidence was ignored. A second study, published in the science journal Nature by the British evolutionary biologist Oliver Pybus, also concluded that the virus had arrived prior to the Bulgarians, perhaps three years before. But the report was published on 6 December, too late for the court to consider it.

In Brussels, Franco Frattini, the EU commissioner for justice, said: "I am shocked by this decision. It is a great disappointment. I very much hope the Libyan authorities will overturn this decision, which is a dangerous gesture and an obstacle to co-operation with the European Union." Libya's Foreign Minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, said the case would automatically be referred to the Supreme Court.

The medical workers listened impassively in court while Judge Mahmoud Haouissa took a bare seven minutes to take the roll call then read out the sentence.

"In the name of the people," he declared, "and having examined the documents and listened to the arguments of the lawyers for both parties, the court has decided to pronounce condemnation to death." A retrial had been ordered after the first death sentences, the result of criticism from abroad about the quality of the trial. The six defendants have been in prison for nearly seven years. They were first arrested in 1999 after children at the hospital in Benghazi, where they had started working in 1998, began mysteriously falling ill.

The Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi, pronounced his own verdict on the foreigners at an Aids conference in Nigeria in 2001. He said: "We have found a doctor and a group of nurses in possession of HIV who had been requested to do experiments on the effects of the virus on children. And who charged them with this odious conspiracy? Some say that it was the CIA, others say it was Mossad."

The Bulgarian women said that they were tortured with electric shocks and jumped on to make them confess. Two claimed that they had been raped.

The Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Hasan, also said he was severely tortured to force him to admit to being a Mossad agent. His father, Ahmad, told The Independent his son had been strapped to a metal bed frame, given electric shocks for hours, beaten on the head and groin with electric batons, and sodomised with a broom handle. Cigarettes were stubbed out on him, and he lost three teeth after being hit in the mouth.

In both trials, the confessions extracted from the accused under torture were used. The foreigners had brought charges against eight police officers, a military doctor and a translator, who they claimed were responsible for torturing them.

A court in Tripoli acquitted all 10 in June last year after what Amnesty International claimed were "irregular proceedings".

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