Libyans Protest U.S. Condemnation of Death Sentence for Bulgarian Workers Accused of Infecting Children With HIV
Nearly 1,000 people in Libya on Sunday marched and burned an American flag to protest U.S. criticism of a Libyan court verdict sentencing six Bulgarian health care workers and a Palestinian doctor to death for allegedly intentionally infecting more than 400 children with HIV through contaminated blood products, the Columbia State reports (Columbia State, 5/10). A five-judge panel on Thursday sentenced to death by firing squad the six workers who have been detained in the country since early 1999. Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi initially accused the health workers of taking orders from the CIA and the Israeli secret service to kill Libyan children in order to destabilize the country. However, some European governments and human rights groups say that the Libyan Health Ministry failed to screen blood products adequately and allowed poor sterilization practices at Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, where the children were infected (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/6). Western government and human rights groups denounced the sentences, saying that they were based on false confessions resulting from torture, according to the AP/Sioux City Journal (AP/Sioux City Journal, 5/10).
The U.S. government called the sentences "unacceptable" and said that Libya had violated the health care workers' human rights, according to BBC News (BBC News, 5/10). However, the Libyan government on Friday said that the U.S. government has "no moral authority anymore to talk about human rights" in light of the alleged Iraqi prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison (Reuters, 5/9). "The United States' [reaction] means that the death of more than 400 Libyan children is acceptable but the punishment of the guilty is unacceptable," Libyan government spokesperson Hassuna Shaush said (Agence France-Presse, 5/8). The protestors marched through Benghazi -- where the trial took place -- to the Italian consulate, which represents U.S. interests in the country. Some of the protestors held up images of Iraqi prisoners who allegedly were abused at Abu Ghraib prison with the caption, "Where are the human rights?" (AFP/Sunday Times, 5/10). "If an Arab or a Muslim did this, they would call us terrorists," Fatma al-Obeidi, the mother of one of the HIV-positive children, said, adding, "But when a European or an American does this, they question the impartiality of our judiciary" (AP/Sioux City Journal, 5/10).
Bulgarian officials on Saturday said the country would launch an immediate appeal of the verdict, Agence France-Presse reports (Agence France-Presse, 5/8). Under Libyan law, people sentenced to death have an automatic right to appeal (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/6). "We've ordered the defense to immediately take action to file an appeal against the verdict," Bulgarian Justice Minister Anton Stankov said, adding, "We agree with neither the death sentences handed down nor the so-called guilt" (Agence France-Presse, 5/8). The appeals court ruling will be final (Bulgarian News Agency, 5/8). Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov may travel to the country in an attempt to persuade Kadafi to release the health workers. Although a date for Parvanov's visit has not yet been scheduled, preparations are underway, foreign policy aide Georgi Dimitrov said, according to the Bulgarian News Network (Bulgarian News Network, 5/10).
Although Kadafi has "turned over a new leaf on the international stage," these diplomatic moves have not stopped a "miscarriage of justice" in the Bulgarian trials, a Toronto Globe and Mail editorial says. The "most obvious explanation" for the widespread infections -- that there was "inadequate sterilization in the hospital well before the accused workers arrived" -- was "brushed aside," the editorial says. In addition, the health care workers have claimed that the two confessions on which the convictions were based came after torture and the forced signing of statements written in Arabic that they did not understand, the editorial says. Therefore, it is "impossible not to believe that the charges were trumped-up and that, as the Bulgarian government has long argued, there was no credible evidence against the accused," the Globe and Mail says. The workers should be pardoned and "since there is every indication that [they] have been made scapegoats for homegrown negligence," the Libyan government should "shoulder [the] burden" of providing the compensation it feels the families of the HIV-positive children deserve, the editorial concludes (Globe and Mail, 5/10).