Libyan court condemns all accused to death for infecting children with HIV
Khaled El-Deeb And Willa Thayer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
CREDIT: Associated Press
Bulgarian nurse Cristiana Valcheva awaits the verdict from the caged dock, at the trial of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor in Tripoli, Libya Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006.
TRIPOLI, Libya - A court on Tuesday convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor of deliberately infecting 400 children with the HIV virus and sentenced them to death, provoking condemnation from Bulgaria and shouts of joy in Tripoli.
"God is great!" yelled Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, as soon as the presiding judge finished reading the verdict in the Tripoli courtroom. "Long live the Libyan judiciary!"
Bulgaria swiftly condemned the decision, and reiterated its belief that the children were infected by unhygienic conditions in their Benghazi hospital.
"Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak in Benghazi," said Bulgarian parliamentary speaker Georgi Pirinski.
The five Bulgarians and the Palestinian sat stony-faced and made no reaction as the judge finished delivering the verdict.
Chief Bulgarian counsel Trayan Markovski told Bulgarian National Radio that the defendants would appeal to the Supreme Court. Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam told reporters afterward that the case would automatically be referred to the Supreme Court.
The long trial of the six foreign medical workers has held up the efforts of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to rebuild ties with the West. Europe and the United States had called for the medics' release, indicating that relations with Libya would be affected by Tuesday's verdict.
The presiding judge, Mahmoud Hawissa, took only seven minutes to confirm the presence of the accused - who all answered "yes" in Arabic - and read the judgement in the longest and most politicized court process in modern Libyan history.
The six defendants, detained for nearly seven years, had previously been convicted and condemned to death, but Libyan judges granted them a retrial last year after international protests over the fairness of the proceedings.
An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, promptly criticized the retrial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence. Research published this month said samples from the infected children showed their viruses were contracted before the six defendants started working at the hospital in question.
"We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one," Cantier said after the verdict. His colleague, Ivan Paneff, said Lawyers Without Borders had tried to persuade the judges to commission international experts to investigate conditions at the hospital, but "they refused."
Bulgaria's Pirinski made the same point in Sofia, saying: "The court has not taken into account the unquestionable judicial and scientific evidences for the innocence of the medics."
Libyans strongly supported a conviction. Some 50 relatives of the infected children - about 50 of whom have already died of AIDS - waited outside the court early Tuesday morning, holding poster-sized pictures of their children and bearing placards that read "Death for the children killers" and "HIV made in Bulgaria."
After the verdict, relatives at the court gates chanted "Execution! Execution!"
In Bulgaria, hundreds of people had staged peaceful protests in support of the five nurses on Monday.
Europe, the United States and international rights groups have accused Libya of prosecuting the six foreign staff as scapegoats for dirty conditions at the Benghazi children's hospital.
Luc Montagnier - the French doctor who was a co-discoverer of HIV - testified in the first trial that the deadly virus was active in the hospital before the Bulgarian nurses began their contracts there in 1998.
More evidence for that argument surfaced on Dec. 6 - too late to be submitted in court - when Nature magazine published an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from the children.
Using changes in the genetic information of HIV over time as a "molecular clock," the analysts concluded that the virus was contracted before the six defendants arrived at the hospital - perhaps even three years before.
Idriss Lagha, the president of a group representing the victims, rejected the Nature article, telling a press conference in London on Monday that the nurses had infected the children with a "genetically engineered" virus. He accused them as doing so for research on behalf of foreign intelligence agencies.
When the defendants were allowed to give evidence last month, they denied intentionally infecting children.
"No doctor or nurse would dare commit such a dreadful crime," said nurse Cristiana Valcheva, adding that she sympathized with the victims and their families.
A second Bulgarian, Valentina Siropulo, testified that of her seven years in Libya, "I've spent only 6 months working as a nurse and the rest of the time in prison."
Gadhafi, who has been trying to refashion his image from leader of a rogue state, got his government to ask Bulgaria to pay compensation to the children's families.
But Sofia rejected the idea as indicating an admission of the nurses' guilt.
Joint Statement from the International Council of Nurses and the World Medical Association
Re: Libya Verdict for Bulgarian Nurses and Palestinian Doctor
In a joint statement about todayfs decision by the Libyan court, the International Council of Nurses and the World Medical Association said:
eWe are appalled by the decision of the Libyan court to sentence the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to death. Todayfs decision turns a blind eye to the science and evidence that points clearly to the fact that these children were infected well before the medical workers arrived at the hospital.
'How many children will go on dying in Libyan hospitals while the government ignores the root of the problem ?'
'If there is any hope of justice for these nurses and this doctor, we appeal to the Supreme Court to again quash these death sentences.'
The International Council of Nurses is a federation of 129 national nurses' associations representing the millions of nurses worldwide. Operated by nurses for nurses, ICN is the international voice of nursing and works to ensure quality care for all and sound health policies globally.
For further information contact Linda Carrier-Walker
Tel: +41 22 908 0100 Fax: +41 22 908 0101 email: email@example.com Web site: www.icn.ch
Libya HIV Verdict Lacks Medical Support
International Scientists Suggest Court Refused Scientific Evidence
The defendants, a Palestinian doctor and Bulgarian nurses, sit as the verdict of their trial is read out in the courtroom in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006. (Ben Curtis/AP Photo)
By SIRI NILSSON
ABC News Medical Unit
Dec.19, 2006 \ A verdict Tuesday from Libyan judge Mahmoud Hauissa sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death for deliberately infecting hundreds of hospitalized children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While relatives of the infected children cheer, doctors and scientists said there is no medical evidence to support the charges.
Today's ruling is more than a strict legal matter. The case has captured worldwide attention from members of the medical community who suggest that the Libyan government has turned a blind eye to the root of the problem \ alleged negligence and poor hygiene in Libyan hospitals.
The defense argued on Oct. 31, 2006, that neglect caused the HIV infections. Prosecutors demanded the death penalty for the six health workers on Aug. 29, 2006.
Molecular evidence suggests that the HIV that infected the children was already present in Libya before the foreign health care workers came in 1998, according to a study published in the Oct. 25, 2006, issue of the journal Nature.
Molecular Evidence Ignored
Another group of 44 international scientists reiterates that the virus had been floating around the Libyan hospital before the accused workers got there. The scientists published their theories in a letter to the journal Science in October 2006. The letter suggests that poor infection-control practices \ including the lack of sterile, disposable injecting equipment \ caused the HIV outbreak.
Some of the kids probably had HIV to begin with, from birth; others probably got it from unsanitary hospital conditions. There is no evidence of a deliberate plot to infect kids with HIV, according to scientific evidence.
A team of international AIDS and health experts concluded that evidence against the six defendants is "deeply flawed," according to the Nature report.
While the prosecution's evidence may be flawed, evidence from the defense has allegedly been ignored. More than 100 Nobel laureates penned a letter to the same journal that reads "strong scientific evidence is needed to establish the cause of this infection. However, independent science-based evidence from international experts has so far not been permitted in court."
In quotes: Reaction to Libya HIV trial verdict
A Libyan court has sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death for deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with the HIV virus that causes Aids.
Western countries and medical experts, as well as family and friends of the accused, have criticised the trial as unfair and politically motivated.
GEORGY PARVANOV, BULGARIAN PRESIDENT, SERGEY STANISHEV, PRIME MINISTER
The whole court case was compromised and covers up the real cause that sparked the Aids epidemics in Benghazi.
We urge the Libyan authorities to intervene at once, speedily review this ruling, overturn the absurd sentences and release the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor.
IVAILO KALFIN, BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER
The decision is deeply disappointing.
The Libyan court did not take into consideration all the proof of the nurses' innocence. The nurses have the right to justice in Libya.
GEORGI PIRINSKI, BULGARIA'S SPEAKER OF PARLIAMENT
We categorically condemn the death sentences.
The doctor and nurses have spent the last seven years in custody
Convicting innocent people to death covers the real perpetrators of the Aids epidemic and deepens the tragedy.
We urge the international community to condemn the court's decision categorically and join the appeal for Libya to release the defendants immediately.
EU JUSTICE AND SECURITY COMMISSIONER FRANCO FRATTINI
My first reaction is great disappointment. I am shocked by this kind of decision. I strongly hope that somehow the Libyan authorities will rethink this decision.
It's a negative message for the European Union. I cannot imagine that the death sentences will be carried out
JOHANNES LAITENBERGER , EU COMMISSION SPOKESMAN
The European Commission simply cannot accept this verdict.
As the Presidency of the Council, and as the member-states, the European Commission reiterates its serious concerns with regard to the basis on which the accused persons were prosecuted, their treatment while in custody, and the lengthy delays in the process.
TSVETANKA SIROPOULO, SISTER-IN-LAW OF NURSE VALENTINA SIROPOULO
What just happened was to be expected.
I am sure they will be released, but it will take time. It is so sad that so many years have passed and they are still in jail.
ZORKA ANACHKOVA, MOTHER OF NURSE CHRISTIANA VALCHEVA
I expected this. I am so sick I had to take pills today to go through this new ordeal.
We are all heart-broken. Can someone tell me what evil Christiana has ever done?
POLINA DIMITROVA, DAUGHTER OF NURSE SNEZHANA DIMITROVA
This is such a disgrace. I simply cannot believe that such injustice can be done.
It was not enough they sentenced innocent people, but they now confirm it. I can only imagine how they (the condemned) feel - this must have crushed them.
GEORGE JOFFE, MAGHREB EXPERT, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY
It was absolutely predictable on political ground and had nothing to do with the facts of the case.
I'm not surprised. I think now the real negotiations will begin, to find a way either arranging compensation for the families of the infected children, or a pardon for the nurses.
There are two reasons for this. Number one, it gives Gaddafi a much better lever to force negotiations for compensation, and number two, it's a way of appeasing the families in Benghazi.
There will be a price to pay. It depends on what the international community is prepared to pay. But that's still not clear. It will be almost certainly in the form of humanitarian compensation.
JOINT STATEMENT, THE WORLD MEDICAL ASSOCIATION AND INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF NURSES
We are appalled by the decision of the Libyan court to sentence the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to death.
Today's decision turns a blind eye to the science and evidence that points clearly to the fact that these children were infected well before the medical workers arrived at the hospital.
How many children will go on dying in Libyan hospitals while the Government ignores the root of the problem?
If there is any hope of justice for these nurses and this doctor, we appeal to the Supreme Court to again quash these death sentences.
MARTIN REES, UK ROYAL SOCIETY PRESIDENT
This verdict is extremely concerning. We hope that this decision will be overturned on appeal, particularly in light of the latest scientific evidence which suggests that the children were not deliberately infected while in hospital.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL SPOKESMAN PHILIP LUTHER
We firmly condemn the death sentences and ask the Libyan authorities to withdraw them.
We've had serious concerns about both this retrial and the previous, original trial of the six health professionals and we are therefore also concerned that they may be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned merely because of their nationality, used as scapegoats in this tragic case.