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Prosecutor seeks death penalty in Libya HIV case
  By Salah Sarrar
Tuesday, August 29, 2006; 8:27 AM
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A Libyan prosecutor demanded the death penalty on Tuesday for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor on trial for the second time on charges that they infected hundreds of children with the HIV virus.
"The act was cruel, criminal and inhuman. It's a human catastrophe," prosecutor Omar Abdulkhaleq told the court, adding 53 of the 430 children infected had subsequently died.
"We demand the death penalty for the accused."
A previous trial of the six, who have been detained since 1999, ended with their conviction on charges they intentionally infected 426 children with HIV when they worked in a hospital in Benghazi in the late 1990s.
In December 2005, the supreme court overturned the convictions, which had resulted in sentences of death by firing squad, and sent the case back to a lower court. The retrial began in May 2006.
The case has slowed Libya's efforts to end decades of diplomatic isolation as Bulgaria and its allies, the European Union and the United States, say the nurses are innocent.
The medics, Palestinian doctor Ashraf Alhajouj and Bulgarians Snezhana Dimitrova, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropolu, Christiana Valcheva and Valia Cherveniashka denied the charges in both their first and second trials and have repeatedly testified that they were tortured to make them confess.
Abdulkhaleq told the Tripoli court that the six had also committed offences related to buying and selling alcohol, having illicit sexual relations and carrying out illegal hard currency exchanges. Sex outside marriage is illegal in Libya.
The six deny those accusations.
Abdulkhaleq added without elaborating that 20 mothers of the children had become infected with the virus through breast-feeding their infected infants.
Defense lawyer Othman Bizanti asked the court for permission to call a senior Benghazi health official who was once reported in the media as saying the city had had about 1,500 cases of HIV infection before the Benghazi hospital infections occurred.
Court officials said they would examine the request.
Bulgaria and its allies support the medics' torture claims and global AIDS experts say the outbreak at the Benghazi hospital where they worked began before they arrived.
Tripoli has suggested the nurses could go free if Bulgaria pays compensation to the children and their families, who have demanded 4.4 billion euros ($5.5 billion). Bulgaria has refused to pay, but has joined the United States, the EU and Libya in agreeing to back the creation of an aid fund.
The retrial was adjourned to Sept 5.
Bulgarian officials said they hoped for a positive outcome of the trial despite the prosecutor's demands. Deputy Foreign Minister Feim Chaushev said he expected the trial to conclude in September without death sentences for the medics.
"I remain optimistic. The fact that the prosecutors have demanded death sentences again is a normal practice. But I sincerely hope that there will not be death sentences," Chaushev told Reuters.
"What the verdict will be, I cannot tell, but there will be a solution to the situation," he said.
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