By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
PARIS, Dec. 19 -- Six foreign health workers were condemned to death by a Libyan court Tuesday on charges they deliberately infected more than 400 children with the HIV virus, in a lengthy case that has set back Libya's attempts to repair relations with the United States and Europe.
The sentence drew immediate strong condemnation from Washington, European capitals and medical groups, which said the real culprit appeared to be poor hygiene and medical services in the hospital where the children were infected.
An attorney for the six workers -- five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor -- said they would appeal the case to Libya's Supreme Court.
The defendants sat calmly as the verdict was read by presiding Judge Mahmoud Hawissa, according to reports from Tripoli, the Libyan capital. They have been imprisoned since 1999 and were previously sentenced to death by firing squad in 2004, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling a year ago in the face of international protests and ordered a new trial.
The defendants all asserted innocence and said in testimony that earlier statements in which they confessed to deliberately infecting 426 children with the virus that causes AIDS were extracted by torture. Libyans have contended the defendants were carrying out an AIDS experiment that went wrong.
Independent medical studies have shown that the infections, which prosecutors allege occurred in the late 1990s at a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi, predated the 1998 arrival of the six workers at the hospital by at least several years.
The case has become a test for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who has been conducting an aggressive campaign to repair ties to the West after years of being accused of sponsoring terrorism. In 2003, his government agreed to give up a nuclear weapons program; in May, the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Libya.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting the Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin in Washington on Tuesday, expressed dismay at the sentence, saying, "These are people who deserve to go home, and we are very disappointed at the outcome of this verdict."
Rice has long sought to visit Libya to signal its reacceptance by the West, but U.S. officials have said she has been unwilling to go as long as the health workers remained incarcerated. So far, the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors.
The sentence caused particular outrage in Bulgaria, home to most of the defendants. "Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak in Benghazi," Bulgaria's parliament speaker, Georgi Pirinski, said in the capital, Sophia, according to news service accounts. "We appeal to the international community to categorically denounce the court's decision and join the appeal for the Libyan side to immediately release the condemned."
Palestinian officials also called for release of the defendants, as did the European Union and the human rights group Amnesty International.
A joint statement by the World Medical Association and the International Council of Nurses said they were "appalled by the decision," saying it "turns a blind eye to the science and evidence that points clearly to the fact that these children were infected well before the medical workers arrived at the hospital."
Two researchers from Oxford University who studied the case said in a statement that poor hygiene created "a long standing infection control problem at the hospital, dating back to the mid 1990s or earlier."
In Libya, the case has become a political and emotional football, with the families of the infected children, about 50 of whom have died of AIDS, demanding harsh justice. The Libyan government has suggested compensation of about $13 million per child, which presumably would allow the defendants to be freed, but Bulgaria has refused to pay, saying it would be an admission of guilt.
Outside the courthouse in Tripoli on Tuesday, families carried posters demanding "Death for the children killers." After the verdict, the crowd chanted "Execution! Execution!" the Associated Press reported.
"Justice has been done. We are happy," said Subhy Abdullah, whose daughter Mona, 7, died of complications from AIDS contracted at the hospital where the nurses and doctor worked, the Reuters news agency reported. "They should be executed quickly."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.