Anxious wait for families of nurses still jailed in Libya

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The families of five Bulgarian nurses convicted of infecting hundreds of children at a Libyan hospital with HIV are waiting anxiously to discover whether the women are given permission to return home, ending their eight-year ordeal.

On Tuesday, the nurses, and a Palestinian doctor, had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment after a marathon diplomatic effort secured a deal in Tripoli.

Family members - who range from a seven-year-old girl who has yet to meet her grandmother to an ailing father who suffered a stroke during the trial and doesn't know if he will live long enough to see his daughter free - all are waiting for news.

Zdravko Georgiev is married to Kristiana Valcheva, the nurse who was claimed by Libyan prosecutors to have played a lead role in the HIV epidemic, after they allegedly uncovered bags of infected blood at her house. His relief at the commuting of the sentences was tempered by anxiety that his wife remains in prison. "Thank God the death sentences were dropped," he said in a radio interview from Tripoli. "But I cannot make any forecast how long the upcoming procedures will last."

Libya's highest legal body may have spared the medics from a firing squad, but the behind-the-scenes diplomacy continued frantically in an effort to get them home. "I am calling for calmness and a little bit more patience," Bulgaria's Prime Minister, Sergei Stanishev, told reporters. "We are taking all steps to bring this case to an end as soon as possible and see our compatriots very soon on Bulgarian soil."

The family of each infected child received a $1m (£500,000) compensation payment last week to persuade them to drop their demands for the death penalty. Bulgaria also said it was considering contributing to an international fund for humanitarian aid to Libya

Another factor that may help the medics is that Muammar Gaddafi's efforts to end his country's isolation, begun in 2003 when he scrapped a nuclear weapons programme, would be damaged if they stay in jail.

The US State Department urged the Libyan government to "now find a way to allow the medics to return home", and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has offered to visit Colonel Gaddafi, if it would help speed the medics' release.

One of the nurses, Valentina Siropoulo, went to work in Libya to earn the money to pay for her child to study at university. In 1998 she started work at the Al-Fateh Paediatric Hospital in Benghazi. She has spent eight years in a prison in Tripoli where she was beaten and tortured with electric shocks that paralysed part of her face and left her unable to talk for months.

She and the other medics are accused of infecting 460 children with HIV, 56 of whom have died. All six accused say they are innocent and that their confessions were extracted under torture - ranging from having cigarettes stubbed out on their bodies to being sodomised with a broom handle. Experts and scientific reports have said that the children were contaminated as a result of unhygienic conditions at the hospital, and that the infections started before most of the foreign hospital staff arrived.

"My soul is incurably ill," Ms Siropoulo told her family. "[But] the belief in good and truth, in the fact that you exist, that there is someone thinking about me, that I want very much to see you, gives me strength to fight the evil and to continue to live."

The case

February 1999

Nineteen Bulgarian medical workers arrested at children's hospital in Benghazi after an outbreak of HIV/Aids. Thirteen are later freed.

February 2000

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor go on trial on charges of deliberately infecting hundreds of children at the hospital with HIV-contaminated blood.

Summer 2000

They complain of being tortured into signing confessions which they could not read. All plead not guilty.

September 2003

French doctor testifies epidemic probably caused by poor hygiene before the accused began work.

May 2004

Libya sentences the six to death.

May 2005

The Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov visits Libya.

December 2005

Fund set up for children's families.

11 July 2007

Death sentence is upheld.

17 July 2007

Death penalties commuted.