SOFIA, (Reuters) – Libya”s Supreme Court could rule by the end of the year on the fate of five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for deliberately infecting children with the HIV virus, a Bulgarian Foreign Ministry official said.
The case has stalled Libya”s attempts to improve ties with the West.
The nurses, and a Palestinian doctor, were convicted of intentionally infecting 426 children with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. About 50 of the children have died.
The court will hear an appeal on Sunday, with a final verdict possible several days later, Foreign Ministry spokesman Dimitar Tsanchev told Reuters.
The appeal comes amid increased optimism the nurses could be released after Libya and Bulgaria, the European Union and the United States agreed to set up a fund to provide financial and other help for the sick children and their families.
Libya has suggested the verdicts could be quashed if the infected youngsters and their parents receive ample humanitarian aid.
"Our expectations are that on Christmas day the court will just have a hearing. But it may hold another session in the next few days and issue a final verdict," Tsanchev said.
The medical workers, in custody since 1999, face death by firing squad for infecting the children with the HIV virus in a hospital of the Mediterranean port of Benghazi.
The nurses say they are innocent and their confessions were made under torture. AIDS experts told a Libyan court the outbreak started before the nurses arrived and was probably caused by poor hygiene.
Bulgaria, the European Union and the United States have denounced the verdicts and the case has become a hurdle to Libya”s attempts to end its international isolation.
The court had initially set the hearing for Jan. 31, but following a request by the defence to speed up the trial rescheduled it for Christmas day.
Tsanchev said his expectations of a ruling by the end of the year were based on the opinion of the defence team. Defence lawyer Othman Bizanti said the court might rule before the end of the year, Bulgarian daily Trud reported on Saturday.
"I suppose the court is ready to make a final decision, but it is only up to it whether this will happen in the next two or three days, or after two or three weeks," Trud quoted Bizanti as saying.
No further details on the international fund have been released, and the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry declined this week to comment on its size.
An official of the Gaddafi Charity foundation, chaired by the influential son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam, said in Tripoli that the Libyan and Bulgarian sides would meet on Wednesday to work out the compensation details for the families of the children.