Libya Court hears Bulgarian Nuses' appeal in HIV cases
By Salah Sarrar
Wednesday, June 20, 2007; 6:54 AM
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The Libyan Supreme Court began hearing an appeal on Wednesday by six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting Libyan children with HIV in the final stage of a trial that has affected Libya's ties with the West.
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 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 are Nasya Nenova, Snezhana Dimitrova, Valentina Siropolu, Christiana Valcheva and Valia Cherveniashka.
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.
Death row Bulgarian Nurses launch last-ditch appeal in Libya
Judges of Libya's supreme court listen in Tripoli to arguments during the final appeal of six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus. Six foreign medics on death row for infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus launched a final appeal after more than eight years behind bars for a crime they say they did not commit.
Six foreign medics on death row for infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus launched a final appeal on Wednesday after more than eight years behind bars for a crime they say they did not commit.
Relatives of the victims staged a rally outside the Tripoli courtroom as the hearing got underway, holding up pictures of their infected children, 56 of whom have died.
The five accused Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who was this week granted Bulgarian citizenship were not in court.
Libya's supreme court is expected to uphold the death sentences against the six medics, but the verdict is expected to pave the way for a compensation package and for the sentences to be commuted.
Judicial sources said the victim's families renewed their call for the death penalty and the public prosecutor was expected to follow suit.
The doctor's lawyer, Tuhani Tumi, called for the verdict to be scrapped saying any confession had been extracted under torture, while the nurses' lawyer submitted a 100-page document arguing there was no proof of guilt.
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, has said he expected compensation for the infected childrens' families to be worked out between the Bulgarian government and the European Union.
"Immediately after the verdict, we will begin to work... on a package (of measures) with a view to a solution," Islam told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Libyan sources close to the case said that provided the package was agreed, a final decision on the medics' fate could be reached by the end of the week.
Libya's highest court has the authority to commute the death sentences to prison terms that could be served in Bulgaria which has an extradition treaty with Tripoli, a Libyan lawyer said on condition of anonymity.
The medics were first arrested in February 1999 and sentenced to death in May 2004 after being convicted of infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood at a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi.
The accused have denied the charges and foreign health experts, led by AIDS virus discoverer Luc Montagnier, have said the epidemic in Benghazi, Libya's second city, was probably the result of poor hygiene.
The case has sparked mounting criticism from the EU and the United States and hindered Libya's efforts at rapprochment with the West after Kadhafi's regime renounced efforts to develop mass destruction weapons in December 2003.
US President George W. Bush appealed for the release of the medics last week during a visit to Bulgaria.
A date for the final appeal hearing was only decided after senior EU diplomats including External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner visited Libya earlier this month.
Apart from a brief spell inside, journalists covering the hearing were being kept in a separate room, where images from the court were being transmitted.
The nurses -- Kristiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valya Cherveniashka, Valentina Siropulo, and Snezhana Dimitrova -- and the doctor, Ashraf Juma Hajuj, are said to have suffered depression and other mental stress during their lengthy wait on death row.
Sofia on Tuesday said it has granted Hajuj, a resident of Libya since the age of five, Bulgarian citizenship as it would allow him to be extradited to Bulgaria along with the nurses.
Kadhafi's son said any compensation for the victims would include medical assistance for the infected children and EU financing of a Libyan national action plan against AIDS.
The relatives initially asked for compensation of 10 million euros (about 13 million dollars) for each victim, saying however the amount was negotiable.