Libyan Court Condemns Bulgarian Nurses

The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; 9:40 PM

TRIPOLI, Libya -- A court convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor Tuesday of deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV and sentenced them to death, despite scientific evidence the youngsters had the virus before the medical workers came to Libya.

The United States and Europe reacted with outrage to the verdict, which prolongs a case that has hurt Libya's ties to the West. The six co-defendants already have served seven years in jail.

Earlier this month, an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples taken from some of the children concluded the viral strains were circulating at the hospital where they were treated well before the nurses and doctor arrived in March 1998, according to research published by the journal Nature.

There is widespread anger in Libya over the HIV infections, and the sentence brought cheers. The Libyan press has long depicted the medical workers as guilty.

After the sentence was pronounced, dozens of relatives outside the Tripoli court chanted "Execution! Execution!" Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, shouted, "God is great! Long live the Libyan judiciary!"

The ruling stunned the defendants. They were convicted and sentenced to death a year ago, but the Libyan Supreme Court ordered a retrial after an international outcry that the first trial was unfair. The case now returns to the Supreme Court for an automatic appeal.

"This sentence was another blow, another shock for us," Zdravko Georgiev, the husband of one of the nurses, Kristiana Valcheva, told The Associated Press in Bulgaria.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin in Washington, said the United States was "very disappointed with the outcome" and urged the medical workers be freed and "allowed to go home at the earliest possible date."

The European Union said it was "shocked" by the verdict. Spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said the EU had not yet decided to take steps against Libya while the ruling is appealed _ but he "did not rule anything out." Bulgaria will join the EU on Jan. 1.

The nurses and doctor have been in jail since 1999 on charges that they intentionally spread HIV to more than 400 children at a hospital in Benghazi during what Libya claims was a botched experiment to find a cure for AIDS. Fifty children have died, and the rest have been treated in Europe.

Bulgaria and European officials have blamed the infections on unhygienic practices at the hospital and accuse Libya of making the medical workers scapegoats.

Gadhafi has tried to reach a deal by which Bulgaria would compensate the victims, a proposal Sofia has rejected, saying it would imply the nurses' guilt. The defendants have claimed they were tortured in detention, and two of the nurses _ who are all women _ said they were raped. A Libyan court acquitted several Libyan prison officials of the charge.

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