Libya’s Judicial Council Commutes Death Sentence for Medical Workers in HIV Infection Case
Libya's Supreme Judicial Council on Tuesday commuted the death sentences of six medical workers who were sentenced for allegedly intentionally infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, the New York Times reports (Smith, New York Times, 7/18).
The five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor in May 2004 were sentenced to death by firing squad for allegedly infecting 426 children with HIV 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. A court in Tripoli, Libya, in December 2006 convicted the health workers and sentenced them to death. The medical workers then filed an appeal of the December 2006 conviction with the Libyan Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction earlier this month.
The Gaddafi Development Foundation -- which is headed by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi -- confirmed on Sunday that the families of the children accepted a compensation package of about $460 million (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/17).
The judicial council -- which can approve or cancel the Supreme Court's conviction of the medical workers or issue a less serious sentence -- reduced the sentence to life in prison after each family received the compensation package, the Los Angeles Times reports. Idriss Lagha, head of the Association for the Families of HIV-Infected Children, on Tuesday confirmed that each family had received the payment. According to Lagha, the families' acceptance of the compensation implies that they have abandoned their complaint against the medical workers and their call for the workers' execution.
Lagha indicated that the money was being transferred through an international fund supported by several countries -- including Bulgaria and other Balkan nations -- the European Union and the U.S. The fund allows countries to provide money without directly paying the families, according to the Los Angeles Times (Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, 7/18). However, it remains unclear "where the money paid to the families came from," the New York Times reports. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi has indicated that Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia forgave some of Libya's debt, freeing funds that were part of the compensation package. But the governments of those countries have denied the claim, according to the New York Times. Bulgaria has committed to participate in the international fund (New York Times, 7/18).
The commutation of the sentence could "pave the way" for an agreement to extradite the medical workers to Bulgaria, where they likely will be released, the New York Times reports (New York Times, 7/18). Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin during a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, said, "For us, the case will be over after the Bulgarian women come home," adding, "We are ready to start work on the transfer immediately" (Los Angeles Times, 7/18). According to Dimiter Tzantcev, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Bulgarian institutions already have "started the procedural steps needed for the transfer," and the "formal request" will be made on Thursday.
Libya Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said his government most likely will grant the request, but he did not give a date. "Issuing this decision automatically closes the legal case against them," Shalqam said, adding, "There is a legal cooperation agreement between Libya and Bulgaria, and we don't mind that the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor benefit from it" (New York Times, 7/18). Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack said the U.S. is "encouraged" by the council's decision, adding, "We urge the Libyan government to now find a way to allow the medics to return home" (Sullivan, Washington Post, 7/18). "The fact that (Libya's) High Judicial Council did not uphold the death sentence is a first relief," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and E.U. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a joint statement. They added, "However, our objective is a solution which allows for the departure of the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical personnel from Libya and their transfer to the E.U. as soon as possible" (El-Deeb, AP/ABC News, 7/18).