TRIPOLI,(Reuters) – A Libyan court will deliver on Dec. 19 its verdict on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who could face the firing squad if they are convicted of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV.
In its closing statement in a re-trial regarded by the outside world as a test of justice in the north African country, the prosecution repeated its demand the six be put to death.
The defendants, who have been in detention since 1999, made personal statements protesting their innocence and repeated that their confessions had been made under torture.
“I swear in front of God that I am innocent,” the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Alhajouj, told the court. “I absolve myself of the lies produced by police torture. The torture marks still exist on my body.”
The six are accused of intentionally infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV at a hospital in Benghazi.
The medics were convicted in a 2004 trial and sentenced to death by firing squad. But the supreme court quashed the ruling last year and ordered the case be returned to a lower court. “We demand the accused be condemned and receive the utmost punishment,” prosecutor Abbas Warfally said on Saturday.
Judge Mahmoud Haouissa wrapped up proceedings by saying the case had been reserved for judgment on Dec. 19.
The medics’ case, as well as questions over Libya’s human rights record, are regarded as barriers to expanded links with the West at a time when Washington is in the process of restoring full diplomatic ties with Tripoli after decades of hostility.
Washington backs Bulgaria and the European Union in saying the medics are innocent. Libya has proposed compensation which, the authorities in Tripoli say, would open a way for the pardon and the release of the medics. Sofia rejected the proposal.
The medics have denied the charges in both trials and have repeatedly testified they were tortured to make them confess.
Luc Montagnier, a French doctor who first detected the HIV virus, has said it emerged in the Benghazi hospital in 1997, a year before the medics arrived. He said in testimony at their first trial the children were most probably infected through negligence and poor hygiene.
In an open letter to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi published in the online version of the international science journal Nature, more than 100 Nobel Laureates demanded a fair trial.
“We, Nobel Laureates in the sciences, are gravely concerned about the ongoing trial…Strong scientific evidence is needed to establish the cause of this infection. However, independent science-based evidence from international experts has so far not been permitted in court,” the letter read.
Othman Bizanti, a defence lawyer for the Bulgarians, has said that in 1997 — before the nurses came to Libya — about 207 cases of HIV infection had been found in Benghazi that had not resulted in any legal proceedings. He has questioned why the authorities have not followed them up.
In June 2005 a Libyan court acquitted nine Libyan policemen and a doctor of torturing the medics.
Lawyers of the families of the infected children have asked for 15 million Libyan dinars ($11.6 million) in compensation for each child. With more than 400 children involved, the total compensation demanded would come to around $4.6 billion.
The Bulgarians are Nasya Nenova, Snezhana Dimitrova, Valentina Siropolu, Christiana Valcheva and Valia Cherveniashka.