Libyan Court Overturns Death Sentences, Orders Retrial of Bulgarian Nurses Accused of Infecting Children With HIV
The Libyan Supreme Court on Dec. 25, 2005, overturned the convictions and ordered a retrial in a lower court of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician who were sentenced to death for allegedly infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV, the New York Times reports (Smith, New York Times, 12/26/05). The six medical workers were sentenced to death by firing squad in May 2004 for allegedly infecting the children through contaminated blood products. They 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, Libya, where the children were infected (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/20/05). The health workers say they are innocent of the charges, claiming they were forced to confess, and they have said that they have been tortured by Libyan officials during interrogations. Two of the Bulgarian nurses have said they were raped while imprisoned (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 8/19/05). "The court has accepted the appeal of the Bulgarian nurses and ordered that a new trial will take place at the criminal court of Benghazi," the Supreme Court's president, Ali al-Alus, said (AFP/Yahoo! Asia News, 12/25/05). In his ruling, al-Alus indicated he believed the workers had been tortured, according to the AP/CNN. He said prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that there were "irregularities" in the way the workers were arrested and interrogated (El-Deeb, AP/CNN, 12/25/05). The nurses' head attorney, Othman Bizanti, said the defense at the trial will ask the court to release the nurses. Libyan Justice Minister Ali Hasnaw said the new trial will be held "in one month" (AFP/Yahoo! Asia News, 12/25/05).
Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dimitar Tsanchev said the ruling was the next best thing to freeing the health workers (New York Times, 12/26/05). Bizanti praised the court for acknowledging "procedural violations" (AFP/Yahoo! Asia News, 12/25/05). Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said the death sentences had been "unfair" and said the ruling "confirmed our hope that justice in this case will prevail." U.S. State Department spokesperson Justin Higgins called the ruling "a positive development" (BBC News, 12/25/05). The State Department has repeatedly called for Libya to release the workers (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/17/05). Relatives of the HIV-positive children protested outside of the courtroom, shouting, "This is injustice, this is injustice" (AFP/Yahoo! Asia News, 12/25/05). Later, they protested the ruling in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Some protesters set fire to tires and scuffled with police. Ramadan al-Faytouri, a lawyer for the families, said the six workers would be found guilty in the next trial. "The verdict will delay achieving justice for years because the retrial takes a long time. We will be ready, and we have enough evidence to incriminate them," he said (AP/CNN, 12/25/05).
The verdict came two days after an announcement that Bulgaria, Libya, the U.S. and the European Union agreed to establish a fund to support the HIV-positive Libyan children. The agreement did not mention the accused health workers (Smith/Wood, New York Times, 12/24/05). The move is "part of the international effort to find an outcome acceptable to all sides of the situation that followed the tragic spread of HIV/AIDS in Benghazi," according to a statement by Bulgarian officials. "The fund will seek, collect and coordinate the distribution of financial and material aid to the Benghazi families," the statement added. Tsanchev said money for the fund would come from "both governmental and international nongovernmental organizations" (AFP/Yahoo! News, 12/23/05). Tsanchev stressed that the money would not serve as compensation because Bulgaria believes the nurses are innocent (New York Times, 12/24/05). The size of the fund was expected to be disclosed on Dec. 28, 2005, during talks between Bulgaria and Libya, but on Dec. 27, 2005, officials announced that the negotiations have been postponed until mid-January (AP/CNN, 12/27/05). According to an unnamed Bulgarian official, the talks have been delayed so that both sides will have more time to prepare (Reuters India, 12/27/05).
NPR's "All Things Considered" on December 26, 2005, discussed the case with New York Times reporter Craig Smith (Siegel, "All Things Considered," NPR, 12/26/05). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.