Libyan judge aims to speed up AIDS trial of Bulgaria nurses

TRIPOLI (AFP) — The retrial of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of contaminating hundreds of Libyan children with AIDS reopened Tuesday with the judge calling for the process to be speeded up.

Judge Mahmoud Huweissa adjourned the trial to June 20 after a brief session and said that in future any petitions would need to be filed in writing.

“From now on we will have a weekly hearing because this case has dragged on too long,” he said.

The coordinator of the Bulgarian defence team, Trayan Markovski, told Bulgaria’s national radio that the decision to step up the pace was “impressive, and definitely a positive fact.”

While the nurses’ Libyan lawyer has been seeking their release on bail, a previous hearing on May 11 was adjourned for procedural reasons and the accused continue to be held in custody. Bulgarian defence lawyers for the five nurses called for a new expert opinion on what caused the hospital AIDS outbreak which infected the children as the two existing assessments were incompatible.

Libyan experts said the outbreak was knowingly sparked by the nurses.

But at their first trial, a co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, Luc Montagnier, and Italian professor Vitorio Colizzi said the disease had spread before the nurses’ arrival in Libya and was due to poor hygiene in the Benghazi Hospital.

One of the defence lawyers, Plamen Yalnazov, also asked the court to accept written testimony from Bulgarian engineer Smilian Tachev who was arrested together with the nurses but freed six months later.

Tachev has told Trud newspaper in Bulgaria that the nurses were tortured in detention.

The Palestinian doctor on trial, Ashraf Hajjuj, for his part, has complained about the conditions in which he was being held, and also charged he was being discriminated against.

The nurses, meanwhile, were quoted as refusing to meet Bulgarian journalists in the Judeida prison.

“We have been here for eight years now and we have no more to say. We have a lot to talk to you about in Sofia but we have nothing to say here,” said Kristiana Valcheva.

Jailed since 1999, the nurses and the doctor were condemned to death in May 2004 at an initial trial in the eastern city of Benghazi. They were convicted of infecting 426 Libyan children with AIDS while working at the local hospital.

The six, who proclaim their innocence, appealed to the Libyan supreme court which ordered a new trial last December 25.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the families of the Libyan victims, Idriss Lagha, told AFP that a 52nd child had died of AIDS and that the condition of 50 more had become worse.

“We are finalising travel plans for the children and their mothers to go to France and Italy” for treatment, Lagha said.

“We hope a just solution is found that satisfies all parties, and that the international community responds to the demands of the families” on the payment of compensation, he added.

At the end of December, an international fund to battle AIDS in Libya was set up by Bulgaria in partnership with the European Union and the United States.

Bulgaria said the fund will ensure permanent medical care for AIDS patients, raise the standard of the Benghazi hospital to international levels and provide financial help to families with sick or dead children.

The Libyan families demanded $10 million  in compensation for each of the 426 children contaminated with AIDS, Bulgarian television reported.

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