TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Libya”s Supreme Court on Sunday scrapped death sentences against five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting children with the HIV virus and sent the case back to a lower court for retrial.
The six, jailed since 1999, had been sentenced to death by firing squad in a case blocking Libyan efforts to improve ties with the West. Several diplomats said Libya was eager to put the case behind it and return to mainstream global politics.
The Supreme Court accepted appeals against the lower court ruling both on substance and procedure, one of their lawyers said. The ruling followed agreement last week between Libya and Bulgaria to set up a fund to help families of the sick children.
The five nurses and the doctor had been convicted of infecting 426 Libyan children with the HIV virus in Benghazi.
They had said they were innocent and their confessions were extracted under torture. AIDS experts have said the outbreak started before the nurses arrived and was probably caused by poor hygiene.
"The court has accepted the appeals by the nurses and the doctor and sends the cases back to the lower court for retrial," Ali Alouss, the Supreme Court presiding judge, told an appeals hearing.
Lawyers told Reuters that meant the death sentences were cancelled and the lower court in the Mediterranean port of Benghazi which had earlier issued the death sentences would retry the cases.
"The Supreme Court endorsed the appeals in their substance and technicalities. That means the court cancelled the death sentences and lower court will retry the cases and come with a new ruling," Mahmoud Maghribi, one of the nurses” lawyers, told Reuters.
Bulgaria”s Foreign Ministry reacted favourably to the ruling. A spokesman said Bulgaria hoped the retrial and the repeal of the death sentences were "a recognition of the serious procedural breaches in the trial".
But families of the sick children gathered on a street near the court to vent their anger and bitterness.
"Today”s ruling delays further the final verdict on the cases and extends the suffering of the families. That verdict hurts their feelings as they see their children dying slowly," said Mohamed Salah, a father whose daughter is sick with HIV.
The Association of the Families of the HIV Infected Children”s chairman Ramdane Fitouri told Reuters the lower court could reconfirm the death sentences in the retrial.
"There is no doubt this prolongs our suffering but today”s ruling does not mean the death sentences could not be confirmed again by the lower court. The lower court has the authority to issue again the death sentences," he told Reuters.
Sofia, the European Union and Washington had denounced the earlier verdicts as unfair and repeatedly pressed for the release of the six medical workers, while Libya had highlighted the tragedy of the families of the infected children.
Libya had suggested the verdicts could be quashed if money were provided to cover financial compensation for the families of the victims and medical treatment for the infected children.
Bulgaria has said it joined the fund out of solidarity and its participation should not be seen as an agreement to pay compensation which could be seen as admission of guilt. It has declined to comment on the size of the fund.
An official of the Gaddafi Charity foundation, chaired by the influential son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam, has said that the Libyan and Bulgarian sides would meet on Wednesday to work out the financial details for the families of the children.
A Tripoli-based senior Western diplomat, who believes he understands the thinking of top Libyan officials who are handling the case, said he expected Bulgaria and Libya would hammer out details of their agreement on financial and health care for the children.
"The Libyan government will convince the families of the good deal and push their representatives and lawyers to go to the court and pronounce their pardon of the nurses and the doctor," he said.
The diplomat added that then the court will sentence the nurses for life in jail.
"The Libyan government will then announce it has an agreement with Bulgaria to extradite prisoners to spend the prison terms at home and the nurses will fly home early next year," he added.