SOFIA, Bulgaria, (AP) – Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were pardoned by President Georgi Parvanov upon their arrival in Sofia on Tuesday after spending 8 1/2 years in prison in Libya.
The medics, who were sentenced to life in prison for allegedly contaminating children with the AIDS virus, arrived on a plane with French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and the EU’s commissioner for foreign affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
The six came down the steps from the airplane and were welcomed on the tarmac by family members who hugged them, one lifting the Palestinian doctor off the ground.
They were given bouquets of flowers, and Bulgaria’s president and prime minister were on hand, greeting the nurses and Sarkozy, who had been part of the delegation that negotiated the group’s return.
“I waited so long for this moment,” nurse Snezhana Dimitrova said before falling in the arms of her loved ones.
Libya accused the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. Fifty of the children died. The medics, jailed since 1999, deny infecting the children and say their confessions were extracted under torture.
The deal for the medics’ release included measures to improve the medical care of children with AIDS in Libya, the French presidential palace said, without giving details.
“The return of the medics is a direct result of Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union, of the solidarity which the EU showed Bulgaria,” Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said at the airport.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Tuesday the European Union could move to normalize trade and political ties with Libya now that it has released the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor.
“We hope to go on further normalizing our relations with Libya, our relations with Libya were in a large extent blocked by the non-settlement of this medics issue,” Barroso told reporters.
He said the 27-nation bloc could move to include Libya in regional trade and aid ties with other Mediterranean countries.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would travel to Libya on Wednesday “to help Libya rejoin the international community.” Sarkozy said neither France nor the EU paid any money to Libya for the medics’ release.
Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin announced after the medics’ arrival that President Parvanov had signed a decree to pardon the five nurses and the Palestinian doctor, who was granted Bulgarian citizenship in June.
“Led by the firm conviction in the innocence of the Bulgarian citizens sentenced in Libya and fulfilling his constitutional rights, the President signed a decree for pardon and releases them of their sentences,” Kalfin said.
Bulgaria made an official request Thursday for Tripoli to repatriate the medics to serve their sentences in Bulgaria. It granted citizenship to the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, last month.