Libyan Court Denies Bail in HIV Case
Thursday, May 11, 2006; 4:31 PM
TRIPOLI, Libya -- A new trial for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus began Thursday with a judge refusing bail.
Bulgaria pressed for a quick resolution of the case.
The U.S. and European Union have hinged future relations with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi _ who has been trying to repair his rogue image _ on the verdict.
The nurses and doctor have been in jail since 1999 on charges that they spread the virus that causes AIDS to children at a hospital in Benghazi during a botched experiment to find a cure for the disease. Western nations blame the infections on poor hygiene at Libyan hospitals and accuse Tripoli of concocting the charges as a cover-up.
Amnesty International has said the women reported being tortured with electric shocks and beaten until they confessed. Two nurses said they had been raped.
Defense lawyers had said they intended to base the bail request on their clients' fragile health, but instead argued Thursday that the nurses already had spent enough time in prison.
Nurses Cristiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka and Snezhana Dimitrova all appeared healthy in court Thursday.
"We don't have any problems but we need regular health care," Valcheva told the court.
The medical workers were sentenced to death in 2004. But Libya came under strong international pressure and the Supreme Court threw out the sentences in December, 2005 and ordered a retrial.
The chief judge said at the time that prosecutors had agreed with defense lawyers that there were "irregularities" in the arrest and interrogation of the medical workers, suggesting he believed the defense's contention that the workers were tortured to extract confessions.
Bulgaria's foreign ministry called on Libya to conduct the retrial swiftly and fairly.
"We hope the dates for the next court sessions will be scheduled without further delay," spokesman Dimitar Tsantchev told reporters on Thursday. He also urged the court to consider what he called "serious procedural violations, as well as the defense's categorical evidence for the innocence of the medics."
Bulgaria's deputy foreign minister, Feim Chaushev, predicted Wednesday that the nurses would go free by the end of September.
Trying to rebuild relations with the West, Gadhafi has agreed to dismantle Libya's weapons programs and pay $2.7 billion to the families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. He was believed to have been looking for a face-saving way out of the standoff over the medical workers before the supreme court ordered the six defendants retried.
But Gadhafi faces strong emotions over the case at home. At least 50 of the 426 children were reported to have died, and their relatives held angry protests when the death sentences were overturned.
In Thursday's brief hearing, the presiding judge on a three-member tribunal rejected the bail request after the prosecutor argued the defendants might try to flee the country.
"An escape attempt has already occurred," the prosecutor said, without elaborating.
The Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, said Thursday that he had not been allowed to speak to his family for the past five months.
"We are also victims like those children, but we hope that this tragedy will end soon," he said.
Al-Hazouz also said he wanted to receive the same treatment as the Bulgarian nurses, implying they enjoyed privileges not given to him, but he did not elaborate.
Diplomacy over the trials has been intense.
The decision to grant a new trial came days after U.S., European and Libyan negotiators reached a deal to set up a fund to help infected children's families. But Bulgaria rejected the idea of paying direct compensation or writing off some $53 million of Libya's debt, saying such deals would be seen as an admission of the nurses' guilt.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice weighed in on the issue last month during a visit to Bulgaria's capital, where she called on Libya to release the nurses.