Libya condemns 6 to death in AIDS trial

TRIPOLI (AP) — A court on Tuesday convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor of deliberately infecting 400 children with the HIV virus and sentenced them to death, provoking condemnation from the EU and Bulgaria and shouts of joy in Tripoli.

“God is great!” yelled Ibrahim Mohammed Aurabi, the father of an infected child, as soon as the presiding judge finished reading the verdict in the Tripoli courtroom.

“Long live the Libyan judiciary!” Bulgaria and the European Union swiftly condemned the decision, with Bulgaria reiterating its belief that the children were infected by unhygienic conditions in their Benghazi hospital.

“Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak in Benghazi,” said Bulgarian parliamentary speaker Georgi Pirinski. “(EU Commission) President (Jose Manuel) Barroso and the European Commission are shocked by this verdict,” said EU spokesman Johannes Laitenberger in Brussels. Laitenberger added the EU had not decided immediately to take steps against Libya, but he “did not rule anything out.” Bulgaria will join the EU on January 1.

The five Bulgarians and the Palestinian sat stony-faced and made no reaction as the judge finished delivering the verdict.

Chief Bulgarian counsel Trayan Markovski told Bulgarian National Radio that the defendants would appeal to the supreme court. Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalqam told reporters afterward that the case would automatically be referred to the supreme court.

The long trial of the six foreign medical workers has held up the efforts of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi to rebuild ties with the West. Europe and the United States had called for the medics’ release, indicating that relations with Libya would be affected by Tuesday’s verdict.

Shalqam said that after the supreme court has reviewed the case, it would be heard by the judicial board, which can overturn the ruling. He did not name the members of the board, but said it had “a political dimension,” alluding to international pressure on Libya to acquit the accused.

The presiding judge, Mahmoud Hawissa, took only seven minutes to confirm the presence of the accused — who all answered “yes” in Arabic — and read the judgement in the longest and most politicised court process in modern Libyan history.

The six defendants, detained for nearly seven years, had previously been convicted and condemned to death, but Libyan judges granted them a retrial last year after international protests over the fairness of the proceedings.

An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, promptly criticised the retrial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence. 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. His colleague, Ivan Paneff, said Lawyers Without Borders had tried to persuade the judges to commission international experts to investigate conditions at the hospital, but “they refused”. Bulgaria’s Pirinski made the same point in Sofia, saying: “The court has not taken into account the unquestionable judicial and scientific evidences for the innocence of the medics.” 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.” After the verdict, relatives at the court gates chanted “Execution! Execution!” In Bulgaria, hundreds of people had staged peaceful protests in support of the five nurses 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 deadly virus was active in the hospital before the Bulgarian nurses began their contracts there in 1998.

More evidence for that argument surfaced on December 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 press 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.

Oxford University, which took part in the study published in Nature, issued a statement that said Tuesday’s verdict “runs counter to the conclusion reached by a research team from Oxford University’s Zoology Department who, in collaboration with several European universities, showed that the subtype of HIV involved began infecting patients long before March 1998, the date the prosecution claims the crime began.” France, where about 150 of the children have been treated, reacted strongly.

“France deplores this verdict,” said Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, adding his government was “fundamentally opposed” to the death penalty.

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 sympathised 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.” Qadhafi, 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.

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