By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
LONDON, July 17 -- Officials in Libya on Tuesday commuted the death sentences of six foreign health workers convicted of intentionally infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, the latest in a series of steps aimed at closing a case that has severely strained relations between a once-pariah state and the United States and Europe.
The Judicial Council, the North African nation's highest legal body, ordered that sentences be reduced to life in prison for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who have been on death row since their convictions in December.
Bulgarian officials immediately announced that they would seek extradition of all six -- including the doctor, who has been granted Bulgarian citizenship -- to the East European country on grounds that they should serve out their sentences there. The six have become national heroes in Bulgaria; on return, they would presumably go free quickly.
Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin told reporters in Bulgaria that the decision was a "big step in the right direction" but that his government would consider the case finally over "when our compatriots return to Bulgaria."
Zorka Anachkova, mother of one of the prisoners, nurse Kristiana Valcheva, expressed a similar sentiment, the Reuters news agency reported:
"I feel good. But I will feel even better when I see them come at the airport. The burden will not fall off my heart until I see them home."
In Europe, the commutation was widely seen as part of careful diplomatic choreography toward freeing the six after more than eight years in Libyan prisons. The decision came in combination with a deal in which the family of each of the approximately 460 infected children is receiving about $1 million, some of it from foreign sources.
The case has been an irritant in Libya's relations with the West since the health workers were arrested in 1999. Leaders in European capitals and Washington, along with Palestinian leaders and medical groups, have argued for the health workers' release for years. During a visit last month to Bulgaria, a new member of the NATO alliance and the European Union, President Bush called settling the case "a high priority for our country."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the United States was "encouraged" by the decision, the Associated Press reported. "We urge the Libyan government to now find a way to allow the medics to return home," he added.
Libyans have contended that the health workers were carrying out an AIDS experiment that went wrong, resulting in the infections of the 460 children. More than 50 of them have since died.
The health workers have steadfastly professed their innocence, saying that confessions they made were obtained under torture. Their supporters contend they are scapegoats for infections caused by poor hygienic conditions in the Libyan hospital where they worked. Independent medical studies have concluded that the infections at the facility in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi predated the workers' arrival by several years.
The decision to commute the death sentences was made after hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation was paid to families of the infected children, according to news reports. The money was paid through a fund created in 2005 by the Libyan and Bulgarian governments, under the auspices of the European Union.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham told reporters last week that the money would come from "certain European countries and charitable organizations, and from the Libyan state."
On July 11, Libya's Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences. But on Tuesday the council reversed that decision, hours after families of the victims dropped their demand for capital punishment and said compensation had been paid.
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has worked aggressively in recent years to repair his once-dire image in the West. Long designated by U.S. officials as a sponsor of terrorism, Gaddafi agreed in 2003 to give up his nation's nuclear weapons program. Last year, the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Libya. Last week, Bush announced that he was sending the first U.S. ambassador to Tripoli in nearly 35 years.
Continuing international outcry over the health workers' situation has been an obstacle to Gaddafi's campaign to repair his image. But at home, he had been under severe political pressure from Libyans angry at what they saw as a foreign plot to infect Libyan children.
Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, who heads the Gaddafi Foundation, played a key role in mediating with the families. Reports said the final settlement was about $1 million for each infected child's family; the Libyan government had initially suggested about $13 million per child.
That figure was seen as closely linked to what the Libyan government agreed to pay to each of the victims in the 1988 bombing of a U.S. jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. Gaddafi's government accepted responsibility for the bombing after a Libyan intelligence officer was convicted in the case, in which 259 people on Pan American Flight 103 and 11 people on the ground in Scotland were killed.
That settlement was also key in helping Gaddafi win an end to economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Scottish authorities ruled last month that the Libyan intelligence officer, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, may have been wrongly convicted and granted his request for a new appeal.