Libyan AIDS Trial Bulgarian Nurses and Palestinian Doctor Sentenced to Death
A Libyan court sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death on Tuesday for deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the HIV virus.
The judge announced the verdict in a Tripoli court at the end of the defendant's second trial. A first court convicted the six defendents, who have spent the last seven years in jail, to death in 2004. The ensuing international outcry over the lack of a fair trial prompted the Libyans to order a retrial . The defendants insist that the infection of 426 children with HIV was the result of unhygienic practices at the Libyan hospital where they worked. The accused have the right appeal to the country's Supreme Court.
Western governments have accused the Libyans of using the foreign medical staff as scapegoats for dirty conditions at the hospital. The prosecutors had accused the medics of deliberately injecting the children with contaminated blood as part of an experiment to find a cure for AIDS.
Libyans urge Gadhafi to resist Western pressure
Bulgarians held peaceful protests in support of the five nurses on Monday. However, there has been widespread support in Libya for a conviction. Around 100 relatives of the infected children were waiting for the verdict outside the courtroom on Tuesday morning, holding placards with slogans such as "Death for the child killers" and "HIV made in Bulgaria." They also held up pictures of the children, 52 of whom have already died of AIDS. The families have been collecting signatures for a petition urging Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to "reject pressure from the West." When the Supreme Court ordered a retrial in 2005 there were riots in Benghazi, the city where the children were infected.
George Joffe, an expert on North Africa at Cambridge University told Reuters, "It was absolutely predictable on political ground and had nothing to do with the facts of the case." He added, "There are two reasons for this. It gives Gadhafi a much better lever to force negotiations for compensation, and it's a way of appeasing the families in Benghazi."
Tripoli demanded €10 million in compensation for each infected child's family. However, the Bulgarian government had already rejected the idea, saying it would be tantamount to admitting the nurses' guilt. Reacting to the guilty verdict, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin called the decision "deeply disappointing" and parliamentary speaker Georgi Pirinski said, "We appeal to the international community to categorically denounce the court's decision."
An international observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, criticized the trial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence. According to research published this month in the journal Nature, samples from the infected children showed their viruses were contracted before the five nurses and the doctor had started working at the Libyan hospital.
The long-drawn-out trials have become a stumbling block to Libyan leader Gadhafi's efforts to rebuild ties with the West. Europe and the United States have called for the defendants' release and indicated that a guilty verdict would adversely affect future relations. After the sentences were handed down, European Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said: "My first reaction is great disappointment. I am shocked by this kind of decision. It is an obstacle for our cooperation."