Court delays ruling in death sentence AIDS case

TRIPOLI (AFP) — Libya’s high court on Tuesday delayed a ruling on an appeal by six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus in a case that has raised international concern.
Judge Ali Al Allush said the case involving five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who have already been in custody for six years, had been put back to November 15 but he gave no further details.

Angry scuffles erupted at his decision, with families of some children trying to get into the Tripoli courtroom and forcing officials to shut the doors to keep them out.

Chants of “Kill them or kill us” echoed round the building as security forces tried to control the demonstrators, some of whom vented their wrath against Othman Al Bizanti, the nurses’ defence lawyer.

“Bizanti, you are a traitor, you sold your children for dollars,” they shouted.

Bizanti, whose clients were not in court, said “justice must take the necessary time for everyone’s rights to be respected. We accept the court’s decision.”

He added however: “But it is not fair to prolong the case and slow it (a decision).” The six defendants were condemned in 2004 for injecting 380 children with blood transfusions infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Forty-seven of those children have died.

The accused maintain their innocence. Two nurses and the doctor initially confessed to charges but later said police had extracted the confessions with torture, including beatings and electric shocks.

The European Union, which has warned that the case could harm relations with Tripoli just as the former pariah state returns to the internation fold, called for a rapid resolution of the case.

“I welcome this decision. It indicates that the Libyan supreme court accepts that the original trial needs additional consideration and that the death sentence .. cannot be confirmed,” said EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who visited Tripoli last week.

“After more than six years in jail it’s imperative that a just solution be found as a matter of urgency,” said Ferrero-Waldner, highlighting the fragile condition of the six defendants after six years in prison.

The court was originally due to announce Tuesday whether it would agree to consider the appeal or reject it and thus confirm the death sentences. A positive decision for the condemned six would result in a fresh trial. The judge’s decision follows a weekend visit to Libya by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov to plead for the lives of the six in a case that has strained relations between Sofia and Tripoli.

The defendants are relying on the testimony of AIDS experts, who swore under oath that the children were infected due to poor sanitary conditions at the hospital.

However, the first court that condemned the health workers to death rejected testimony from Luc Montaignier, the French doctor who first isolated the HIV virus, and Swiss and Italian colleagues, that the epidemic was due to a lack of hygiene.

Instead the court based its verdict on a report by Libyan experts that placed the blame on the foreign health workers.

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