TRIPOLI, Libya, (AP) – Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were convicted and sentenced to death by a Libyan court Tuesday on charges they deliberately infected hundreds of children with the AIDS virus. The verdict can be appealed.
Judge Mahmoud Hawissa read out the verdict at a seven-minute hearing in a Tripoli court at the end of the defendants’ second trial.
The six defendants, detained for nearly seven years, had previously been convicted and condemned to death, but Libyan judges granted them a retrial after international protests over the fairness of the proceedings. Bulgaria contends the children were infected by unsanitary practices at their Libyan hospital.
An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, criticized the retrial as lacking scientific rigor. Research published this month said samples from the infected children showed their viruses were contracted before the six defendants started working at the hospital in question.
“We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one,” Cantier said after the verdict.
The long trial of the six foreign medical workers has become a bone of contention in Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s efforts to rebuild ties with the West. Europe and the United States have called for their release, indicating that future relations with Libya would be affected by Tuesday’s verdict.
But Libyans strongly supported a conviction. Some 50 relatives of the infected children — about 50 of whom have already died of AIDS — waited outside the court early Tuesday morning, holding poster-sized pictures of their children and bearing placards that read “Death for the children killers” and “HIV made in Bulgaria.”
When the Supreme Court ordered a retrial in December 2005, friends and relatives rioted in Benghazi, the Libyan city where the children were infected in a state hospital.
Bulgarians will no doubt be disappointed by Tuesday’s verdict. Hundreds of people staged peaceful protests in support of the five nurses in Bulgaria on Monday.
Europe, the United States and international rights groups have accused Libya of prosecuting the six foreign staff as scapegoats for dirty conditions at the Benghazi children’s hospital.
Luc Montagnier — the French doctor who was a co-discoverer of HIV — testified in the first trial that the virus was active in the hospital before the Bulgarian nurses began their contracts there in 1998.
More evidence for that argument surfaced on Dec. 6 — too late to be submitted in court — when Nature magazine published an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from the children.
Using changes in the genetic information of HIV over time as a “molecular clock,” the analysts concluded that the virus was contracted before the six defendants arrived at the hospital — perhaps even three years before.
Idriss Lagha, the president of a group representing the victims, rejected the Nature article, telling a news conference in London on Monday that the nurses had infected the children with a “genetically engineered” virus. He accused them as doing so for research on behalf of foreign intelligence agencies.
When the defendants were allowed to give evidence last month, they denied intentionally infecting children.
“No doctor or nurse would dare commit such a dreadful crime,” said nurse Cristiana Valcheva, adding that she sympathized with the victims and their families.
A second Bulgarian, Valentina Siropulo, testified that of her seven years in Libya, “I’ve spent only 6 months working as a nurse and the rest of the time in prison.”
Gadhafi, who has been trying to refashion his image from leader of a rogue state, got his government to ask Bulgaria to pay compensation to the children’s families.
But Sofia rejected the idea as indicating an admission of the nurses’ guilt.