Libyan court orders medics to be executed by firing squad

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The Independent Online

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death by firing squad by a Libyan court yesterday, prompting the European Union to call for the verdict to be reversed.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death by firing squad by a Libyan court yesterday, prompting the European Union to call for the verdict to be reversed.

At the end of the trial, which was seen by western diplomats in Tripoli as a litmus test for Libya's progress on human rights, the foreign health workers were convicted of deliberately infecting 400 children with the Aids virus in a hospital in Benghazi. At least 43 of the children have died.

The verdict was deeply embarrassing for the European Union, which had welcomed the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to Brussels last week and expressed concern about the case. The decision also raises questions about Tony Blair's rush to rehabilitate the Libyan leader, one which culminated in a visit by the British premier to Tripoli in March.

In court, relatives of the children greeted the sentences with joy. Some shouted "Allahu akbar" meaning "God is great". Abdel Razek al-Odaibi, father of one of the infected children, said: "I thank God for this sentence. If there were a greater sentence than death, I would have wished it for them."

But in Sofia, the government condemned the verdicts as "unfair and absurd". Bulgaria's Minister of Justice, Anton Stankov, said: "I'm shocked by the verdicts. We're not going to accept them."

Ireland's Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, representing the EU under the rotating presidency, told his Libyan counterpart, Abdul Rahman Shalgham, that the EU had "serious concerns" about the trial.

"It does cast a shadow over a relationship that we hoped was getting better," said the EU External Relations Commissioner, Chris Patten.

During his visit to the EU headquarters, Col Gaddafi had promised a speedy resolution to the case. At that meeting the issue was identified as an obstacle to Libya's ambitions to deepen its economic and political ties with Europe.

The European Commission president, Romano Prodi, has long favoured developing a relationship with the Libyan leaders and received support when Mr Blair visited Tripoli, a trip that was intended as a symbolic reward for Col Gaddafi for cooperation with the US and the UK over weapons of mass destruction.

The nurses, all women, said that while in custody they were beaten, tortured with electric shocks and jumped on to make them confess. Two of them claimed to have been raped. A Bulgarian doctor, who was also standing trial, received four years in prison for changing foreign currency on the black market. He was also accused of infecting patients with Aids, but his verdict did not mention that charge and no explanation was given for the change. Nine Libyan hospital officials were acquitted of negligence.

The case originated in 1998, when children in the hospital began falling mysteriously ill. Col Gaddafi told an Aids conference in Nigeria in April 2001 that foreigners in the hospital had deliberately started the epidemic. "It is an odious crime," 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 it was the CIA, others say it was Mossad." Later he denied that the CIA or Mossad was implicated.

The foreign health workers were first charged with "premeditated murder with the intention of undermining the Libyan state", an offence which carries the death penalty. The case was dismissed but a new one was filed, charging the five Bulgarian nurses and two doctors, one Bulgarian and one Palestinian, with "provoking an Aids epidemic through the use of contaminated products", another capital crime.

A French Aids expert, Professor Luc Montagnier, told the court that the infection was caused by poor hygiene. He claimed that the epidemic had probably begun in 1997, one year before the accused began working there, and that it continued after their arrests.

Last night there was an immediate flurry of diplomatic and legal activity at the meeting between Mr Cowen and Mr Shalgham.

Diego Ojeda, a spokesman for the European Commission, said the Libyan Foreign Minister insisted his government cannot change the verdict because the judiciary is independent, but said Libyan law provided for an automatic appeal. Mr Cowen then told the Libyan minister that the appeal procedure must be accelerated," Mr Ojeda said.

Defence lawyers have already said that they would appeal the sentences.

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