Libya condemns foreign pressure in HIV case

Friday, December 29, 2006; 4:59 AM

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Western criticism of death sentences handed to five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor by a Libyan court shows a lack of respect for the Libyan people, Libya's foreign ministry said late on Thursday.

The medics were sentenced last week for deliberately infecting 426 children in the late 1990s with the virus that causes AIDS. More than 50 of the children have since died.

Some Western scientists say negligence and poor hospital hygiene are the real culprits and the six are scapegoats, but in Libya the verdict came as a welcome act of defiance of the West.

Condemnation poured in from Western governments and rights groups after the sentences were passed, with Bulgaria, the EU which it joins next month and Amnesty International among the swiftest critics. Washington said it was disappointed.

The Libyan government defended the court's ruling, saying it had the authority to handle the case and came to its decision in the presence of international human rights and civil society groups.

"The political stance expressed by the Bulgarian government, the EU countries and others is a clear bias to certain values that are likely to trigger wars, conflicts and cause enmity between religions and civilizations," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said the foreign media campaign and political pressure created a dangerous precedent in which Libyans are considered sub-human and treated differently to Bulgarians.

The six medics, who deny the charges, were first found guilty in a 2004 trial and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Analysts said a deal to avoid the executions was still likely given that the ruling could set back oil producer Libya's hopes of better ties with the West.

After the verdicts, Libya's justice and foreign ministers summoned reporters to explain there was every possibility the case could end another way once the appeals process finished.

In its statement, the foreign ministry underlined that the verdicts may not be final as the medics could still appeal to Libya's supreme court.

"The great Jamahiriya (Libya) ... is keen on relations between countries based on dialogue and understanding," it said.

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