Medical Workers Accused of Infecting Libyan Children With HIV Plead Not Guilty; Family Members Testify at Trial
Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician on Tuesday during a hearing before the Tripoli Criminal Court in Libya pleaded not guilty to intentionally infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, and prosecutors in the case called three relatives of the children to testify, the Bulgarian News Agency reports (Zhelyazkov, Bulgarian News Agency, 7/4). The six medical workers were sentenced to death by firing squad in May 2004 for allegedly infecting 426 children through contaminated blood products at Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, Libya. They also were ordered to pay a total of $1 million to the families of the HIV-positive children (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/1). The Libyan Supreme Court in December 2005 overturned the medical workers' convictions and ordered a retrial in a lower court. The health workers say they are innocent of the charges, claiming that they were forced to confess and that they were tortured by Libyan officials during interrogations. Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of HIV, last year testified that HIV was present in the hospital where the children allegedly contracted the virus prior to the arrival of the foreign medical workers. Lawyers defending the health workers have requested that international HIV/AIDS experts be allowed to testify at the retrial about how HIV transmission to the children occurred. The retrial began in May, and Judge Mahmoud Haouissa, the presiding judge on the three-member tribunal, denied the defense's request to release the medical workers on bail after a prosecutor said the defendants might try to leave the country. Haouissa has agreed to a defense request that sessions be held every two weeks, instead of every week, to allow Bulgarian lawyers travel time and time to prepare for each session (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 6/14).
Haouissa on Tuesday read out the charges that the health workers knowingly infected 393 children at the Benghazi hospital with HIV, Reuters South Africa reports. He said the figure of 393 came from records created at the early stage of investigation, adding, "We all know it was more than that." The court also heard testimony from four witnesses called by prosecutors, including the father of one of the HIV-positive children and two mothers of children living with the virus (Reuters South Africa, 7/5). One witness recognized the defendant Nassya Nenova as a nurse who provided care to his child in February 1999; the second witness recognized Ashraf al-Hajuj, the physician, and nurses Valya Chervenyashka, Snezhana Dimitrova and Nassya Nenova; and the third witness recognized Chervenyashka. The medical workers said they had never seen the witnesses before and asked that they name the dates of the encounters (Bulgarian News Agency, 7/4). "I am innocent," Nenova said, adding, "This is a scenario constructed by the police who beat us to extract false confessions" (Reuters, 7/4). The next hearing in the case is scheduled for July 25, when defense witnesses are expected to testify, AFP/Yahoo! News reports. Defense attorney Othman al-Bizanti previously asked for time to arrange the appearance of 26 witnesses residing in Benghazi (Geblawi, AFP/Yahoo! News, 7/4).