The slander trial against five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor ended on Sunday (May 27th) with a Libyan court dismissing the charges against the medics, who already face death sentences for allegedly infecting 426 Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS.
“The court dismisses the accusations,” Tripoli District Court Judge Salem Hamrouni said after a hearing that lasted only minutes.
The nurses were being sued by Libyan police officer Juma Mishri and a local doctor, Abdulmajid Alshoul, along with two other police officers who joined the suit later. The plaintiffs claimed the health workers had criminally defamed them by falsely accusing them of torture.
Bulgarian nurses Kristiana Vulcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka and Snezhana Dimitrova, together with a Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Juma, have been convicted of deliberately infecting the children with HIV. In January of this year, a Libyan court upheld death sentences originally handed down in May 2004.
The verdicts were based largely on signed confessions the nurses made during the investigation. The medics, who have been in prison since February 1999, later testified that they had been tortured into making false confessions.
If they had been convicted of slander, the medics could have received three-year sentences. The claimants also sought compensation amounting to more than 10m euros.
Welcoming Sunday’s ruling as “a positive step,” Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov voiced hope “for the overall fair outcome of the [HIV infection] trial against the Bulgarian medics”, which has drawn sharp international criticism.
The Libyan authorities have refused to admit scientific evidence showing that the HIV outbreak at the Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi predated the medics’ arrival there in 1998 by at least a year. Leading AIDS experts, including Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi, say the widespread infection was likely caused by poor hygiene at the hospital.
The Reuters news agency quoted the medics’ Libyan lawyer, Othman Bizanti, as saying that more than 200 cases of HIV infection had been found in Benghazi in 1997. Authorities took no legal action then, he said.
Ahead of the Tripoli court ruling, an organisation headed by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, issued a statement suggesting the more than eight-year-long saga could soon be resolved with the help of the EU.
“Indications of an impending solution to this crisis have appeared after negotiations in Brussels on May 10th between representatives of the families of Libyan children stricken with AIDS and the EU,” the AFP quoted the Qaddafi Foundation’s statement as reading. “The representatives of the children are satisfied with the negotiations and there is a ray of hope.”
In earlier statements, al-Islam, whose foundation has been acting as an intermediary in the talks, has said that the medics would not be executed.
Libya has also demanded that each of the families of the 426 infected children be paid 10m euros as “blood money”. Under Islamic law, this would allow the victims’ relatives to pardon the nurses. Bulgaria, however, has ruled out any compensation requirements.
“What is important for us now is that Libya, Bulgaria, the EU and the United States make every endeavour to reach a solution for the fate of the hundreds of infected children and for the release of the medics,” Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dimitar Tsantchev said on Sunday.