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Libya sets July 11 for HIV nurses ruling
  Wed Jun 20, 2007 8:29AM EDT
By Salah Sarrar
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's Supreme Court will rule on July 11 on an appeal by six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting Libyan children with HIV, marking the final stage of a trial that has affected Libya's ties with the West.
"The case is reserved for a verdict on July 11," the judge, Fathi Dhan, told the court.
The five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were convicted in December of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV in highly politicized proceedings that have slowed attempts by OPEC-member Libya to end its long international isolation.
The medics, who have been in jail since 1999, have launched an appeal saying they are innocent and were tortured to make them confess. The United States and the European Union have stepped up pressure on Tripoli to release them.
"I ask you, the just court, to restore freedom to these women who have been deprived of it for eight years," Bulgarian lawyer Plamen Yalnazov told the court, which heard arguments from both defense and prosecution lawyers.
The Supreme Court is widely expected to confirm the death sentences, a move that would leave the fate of the medics in the hands of Libya's High Judicial Council, a government-led body which has the power to commute sentences.
Political analysts say the council would be likely to let the nurses return to Bulgaria if a deal to compensate the families of the HIV-infected children can be reached.
Bulgaria said on Tuesday it had granted citizenship to the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Alhajouj, a decision that could help bring him out of Libya if the verdicts are eventually commuted under a possible compensation deal.
"In case of a favorable development in the case, he can be brought back to Bulgaria with the nurses under the legal agreement with Libya," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin told reporters in Bulgaria, referring to a long-standing agreement which allows for prisoner exchanges.
The five nurses, Nasya Nenova, Snezhana Dimitrova, Valentina Siropolu, Christiana Valcheva and Valia Cherveniashka, worked along with Alhajouj at a hospital in the country's second city of Benghazi where the injections occurred in the late 1990s.
Talks between the European Union and the association of families resumed last month with both sides citing progress and saying they hoped for a deal soon. The association wants around 10 million euros (almost $14 million) for each family.
Sofia has refused to pay, saying it would be an admission of guilt. But it has set up a solidarity fund along with the European Union and the United States to provide medical aid and financial support to the children and their relatives.
Hopes of a deal for their release rose last week after a visit to Libya by EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Libyan officials said the visit resulted in positive signs that a deal could be concluded soon.
Some media reports have said provisional agreements had been reached concerning Western provision for the children's future medical care but that no agreement on a financial settlement.
December's trial was the second time the six have been sentenced to death. A Libyan court in May 2004 found them guilty but in December 2005 the Supreme Court scrapped the death sentences and sent the case back to a lower court for retrial.
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