Libyan Court Sentences Medical Workers Accused of Infecting Libyan Children With HIV to Death; Defense To Appeal Ruling
A court in Tripoli, Libya, on Tuesday convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor of intentionally infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV and sentenced them to death, the AP/USA Today reports (El-Deeb/Thayer, AP/USA Today, 12/19). The six medical workers in May 2004 were sentenced to death by firing squad 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. 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. At the retrial, the prosecution reiterated its call for the health workers to be executed. New genetic evidence published earlier in the month in the journal Nature found that the HIV outbreak at the hospital began up to three years before the medical workers arrived at the facility. The evidence also showed that the children were infected with a strain of HIV that is common in West Africa. According to the study's researchers, many Libyan immigrants come from the region. The evidence suggests that the HIV-positive children were exposed to the virus because of insufficient infection control at the hospital, which likely involved improper equipment sterilization before injections (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/14). According to the AP/USA Today, the presiding judge, Mahmoud Haouissa, took seven minutes to confirm the presence of the accused medical workers and read out the verdict and sentence in the "longest and most politicized court process in modern Libyan history" (AP/USA Today, 12/19). Haouissa did not say how the death sentence would be carried out (Ghanmi, Reuters, 12/19).
Bulgarian officials called the ruling "unfair and absurd" and appealed to the international community to respond, RIA Novosti reports (RIA Novosti, 12/19). Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and President Georgi Parvanov in a joint statement said, "We appeal to the international community to categorically condemn the court's decision. And we appeal to the Libyan authorities to immediately become involved in the name of justice ... reject these absurd sentences and free the nurses and the Palestinian doctor" (Winfrey, Reuters/Mail and Guardian, 12/19). "I am shocked by this kind of decision," EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said, adding, "It's a negative message for the European Union. I cannot imagine that the death sentences will be carried out. I strongly hope that somehow the Libyan authorities will rethink this decision" (BBC News, 12/19). Relatives of the HIV-positive children, about 50 of whom already have died of AIDS-related illnesses, waited outside the court Tuesday, holding pictures of their children with placards that read "Death for the children killers" and "HIV made in Bulgaria" (AP/Guardian Unlimited, 12/19).
Next Steps, Implications
Chief Bulgarian counsel Trayan Markovski told Bulgarian National Radio that the defendants would appeal the decision to the Libyan Supreme Court, the CP/Canada.com reports. Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam also said the case would automatically be referred to the Supreme Court (EL-Deeb/Thayer, CP/Canada.com, 12/19). According to some analysts, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has reason to release the six eventually because the case has slowed the country's efforts to restore relations with the international community after decades of isolation. However, analysts also said it will be many months before the case is resolved as Libya attempts to use the workers to negotiate a financial settlement (Reuters, 12/19).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Tuesday included an interview with Albena Shkodrova of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network about the case (Montagne, "Morning Edition," NPR, 12/19). Audio of the segment is available online.