Death sentences against nurses are lifted

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The Independent Online

Bulgaria welcomed the decision by Libya's Supreme Court to scrap death sentences against five Bulgarian nurses and order a retrial of the cases, which have harmed Tripoli's efforts to build ties with the West.

The nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death by firing squad in May 2004 after a court found them guilty of knowingly injecting 426 children with HIV. The accused have maintained their innocence, saying they were tortured and forced to confess.

Bulgaria, the EU and the US have consistently urged their release, accusing Libya of making up the charges to avoid domestic criticism.

Libya's Supreme Court suggested it believed the accused had been tortured in custody and ordered the retrial after Libya and Bulgaria agreed on an aid package for the victims.

The Bulgarian President, Georgi Parvanov, said he hoped the decision would allow the case to end soon. "We hope that the quick and efficient work of the court in the recent days will allow the case to be closed soonest," he said.

Emma Udwin, the European Commission's external relations spokeswoman, said: "It is good news . We hope today's decision can lead to a rapid and fair settlement to all concerned."

The medical workers were arrested in 1998 after a number of children died in the Libyan city of Benghazi. An outbreak of Aids was soon confirmed and 19 foreign nationals, mainly Bulgarian, were accused of deliberately spreading the disease through infected blood at the Al-Fateh children's hospital.

During the original trial, the Bulgarians insisted they had been forced to confess, while expert witnesses cast doubt on the substance of the charges. Professor Luc Montaigner, who first identified the outbreak in Benghazi, testified at the trial's opening that the infection had started before the arrival of the Bulgarian workers. Most of the defendants were acquitted, but six were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Some commentators explain the latest move as a face-saving operation by the Libyan leader, Colonel Moammar Gaddafi, who at one point during the trial accused the health workers of acting on the orders of the CIA and the Israeli secret service, Mossad.

The case had threatened to overshadow his recent attempts to woo the international community, following his decision to abandon Libya's weapons of mass destruction programmes and compensate victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

The retrial will be held in Benghazi Criminal Court. "The verdict reflects the evidence and facts that we have presented, that all the previous measures were null and void and that the confessions were made illegally," a defence lawyer, Othman al-Bezenti, said. "We will be ready for the new trial."

The Supreme Court's decision has, however, angered many Libyans who remain convinced that the medical workers were responsible for the HIV infections. Families of the infected children demonstrated and scuffled with riot police outside the courthouse.

Ramadan al-Faytouri, a lawyer for the families, said the retrial would prolong their agony. "We have enough evidence to incriminate [the accused]," he said. So far, 50 children have died of Aids.