Libyan Supreme Court Delays Ruling on Appeal of Health Workers Sentenced to Death for Allegedly Infecting Children With HIV
Libya's Supreme Court on Tuesday delayed ruling on an appeal of the death sentences of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who allegedly infected about 400 Libyan children with HIV and have been detained in Libya since 1999, AFP/Yahoo! News reports (AFP/Yahoo! News, 5/31). The Supreme Court in March opened a hearing on the case of the health care workers, who in May 2004 were sentenced by a lower court to death by firing squad for allegedly infecting the children with HIV through contaminated blood products. The workers also were ordered to pay a total of $1 million to the families of the HIV-positive children. Many HIV/AIDS experts say that the infections likely are the result of the Libyan Health Ministry's failure to screen blood products adequately and poor sterilization practices at Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, where the children were infected. The Libyan government previously has said it would free the nurses if the Bulgarian government paid compensation equal to the amount Libya paid to relatives of the victims of the 1988 plane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which reportedly was carried out by Libyan secret service agents. Bulgaria so far has declined to pay compensation. The health care workers say they are innocent of the charges, claiming they were forced to confess while being tortured (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/26). Judge Ali al-Allush said the case will be postponed until Nov. 15, but he did not give any details (El-Gueblaoui, Independent Online, 5/31). A different Libyan court last week began a trial of nine Libyan police officers and a physician charged with torturing the health care workers to extract confessions. The court is expected to rule on that case next week (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/26).
Bulgaria and the European Union welcomed the court's delay in ruling on the appeal, VOA News reports. "Obviously, the court did not confirm the verdict. So we have the reading that the court is listening more carefully to the arguments of the defense," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy said, adding, "We hope to have our people back in Bulgaria this year" (Bakshian, VOA News, 5/31). E.U. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who visited the country last week, said, "I welcome this decision. It indicates that the Libyan Supreme Court accepts that the original trial needs additional consideration and that the death sentences ... cannot be confirmed" (Reuters AlertNet, 5/31). U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said, "We would hope that the delay would allow the court to fully consider the shortcomings of the original proceeding and the possible impact of the currently pending criminal case against the individuals accused of extracting confessions from the medics under torture" (Agence France-Presse , 5/31). "It's a good thing for the defendants, and we are happy with the decision," defense attorney Ottman Ali Bizanti said, adding, "It's a big case. The court needs to hear many witnesses and go through many documents, and it's normal that it takes such a decision" (Ghanmi, Reuters, 5/31). Abdullah Moghrabi, the attorney for the HIV-positive children's families, said, "We have confidence in the Libyan judiciary, although my clients believe that the delay is a kind of injustice" (UPI/Washington Times, 5/31). Some parents of the HIV-positive children protested the delay, saying it is unfair to their children. Other parents said they would prefer financial compensation for antiretroviral treatment for their children (SAPA/Mail & Guardian, 6/1).
Bulgarian President Visits Libyan Children
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov over the weekend met with the HIV-positive children in Benghazi, the Los Angeles Times reports. Parvanov said Bulgaria will help with antiretroviral treatment for the children (Los Angeles Times, 5/29). According to relatives of the children, Parvanov also agreed to help the European Union provide the city's hospital with HIV treatment expertise. Parvanov, who said he made the visit to show solidarity with the plight of the affected families, also met with the five Bulgarian health care workers while in Libya (BBC News, 5/28). On Tuesday, he said the court's delay in ruling is encouraging, adding that he hopes it "opens the way to a full investigation of the truth about the tragedy and a just solution of the case of our compatriots, in whose innocence we have no doubt" (Agence France-Presse , 5/31).
"The World" -- a production of BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston -- on Tuesday reported on the Bulgarian nurses' case. The segment includes comments from Matthew Brunwasser, a reporter in Bulgaria (Mullins, "The World," PRI, 5/31). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.