Just over a week ago, they were facing death. On Tuesday, though, they became free men and women again and returned to home soil in Bulgaria.
After eight long years in a Libyan prison, Tripoli on Tuesday released five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted on charges of infecting hundreds of children with HIV. The group landed on Tuesday morning in Sofia and were immediately pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. For Libya, the case represented one of the last remaining barriers for its reintegration into the international community.
The six medics left Libya aboard a French plane before dawn. A few hours later they arrived in the Bulgarian capital to be warmly greeted by their families -- the Palestinian doctor was even lifted off the ground. They were presented with bouquets of flowers and President Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev were also on hand to greet them.
"The return of the medics is a direct result of Bulgaria's membership in the European Union, of the solidarity which the EU showed Bulgaria," Stanishev said at the airport.
EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, were also on board. The two women had met with Libyan leaders over the past few days in their effort to secure the release of the five nurses and a Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, who was granted Bulgarian citizenship last month so that he could benefit from any transfer deal.
A Multimillion-Dollar Compensation Deal
The six medics were arrested in 1999 and sentenced to death in 2004 on charges of deliberately infecting over 400 Libyan children with HIV while working at a hospital in Benghazi. The six claim they were tortured and forced to confess. And experts at their trial testified that the lax hygiene standards at the hospital were in fact to blame for the infections. The case has widely been viewed as a show trial in Europe.
Libya's Supreme Court upheld the death sentences in June. But they were commuted to life imprisonment last week by the country's High Judicial Council after the children's families agreed to a multimillion-dollar compensation deal.
The deal came after years of pressure from the European Union, with Ferrero-Waldner making numerous trips to the North African country to meet with Libyan officials and the prisoners. On Tuesday she said their release "demonstrates the value of concerted EU action."
European Commission President Jose Manual Barroso and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday they were very relieved at the release of the medics and thanked the emir of Qatar for mediating with Tripoli. Sarkozy insisted that neither the EU nor France had "made the slightest financial contribution to Libya" for their release. And the president told a news conference in Paris that he and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner would be visiting Tripoli on Wednesday "to help Libya rejoin the international community."
Barroso told reporters the end of the eight-year saga could finally help to normalize relations between the EU and Libya. "Our relations with Libya were to a large extent blocked by the non-settlement of this medics issue," he said and he added that the 27-nation bloc could move to include Libya in regional trade and ties with other Mediterranean countries. Brussels is also seeking Libyan cooperation on migration issues.
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