Final appeal for Libyan AIDS medics

TRIPOLI — Libya’s supreme court on Wednesday begins hearing the final appeal of six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting children with HIV, raising the prospect of a swift end to the eight-year crisis.Although the court is expected to uphold the death penalty against the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, that verdict should pave the way for a compensation package to be agreed and for the sentences to be commuted.

Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, said on Saturday that he expected a compensation package to be worked out between the Bulgarian government and the European Union.

“Immediately after the verdict, we will begin to work… on a package [of measures] with a view to a solution,” Islam told Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Libyan sources close to the case said that provided the package is agreed, a final decision on the medics’ fate could be reached by the end of the week.

The medics have denied the charges and foreign health experts have said the AIDS epidemic in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, was probably sparked by poor hygiene.

Othman Al Bizanti, a Libyan lawyer for the medics who have already been behind bars for more than eight years, said a verdict was expected shortly after the final appeal process begins.

“It’s improbable that the court will hold more than three sessions before announcing its verdict,” Bizanti told AFP on Saturday.

However, Bizanti said he would ask for an adjournment at Wednesday’s hearing arguing he had not had enough time to prepare his clients’ defence.

A date for the final appeal hearing was only decided after senior EU diplomats including External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner visited Libya earlier this month.

The five nurses — Kristiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valya Cherveniashka, Valentina Siropulo, and Snezhana Dimitrova — and the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Al Hadjudj, were sentenced to death by a Libyan court in May 2004.

They had been found guilty of intentionally infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood at a hospital in the northeastern city of Benghazi. Fifty-six children have since died.

Qadhafi’s son Islam has suggested that the accused would avoid the death penalty by agreeing compensation with the families of the victims.

“The first step is a compromise with the families so that there can be a pardon, in such a way that the death sentence is not carried out,” he told the Italian paper, suggesting that the court will confirm the death penalty.

In the event of a negotiated settlement, “the high council of judicial affairs can say ‘now that there is a compromise with the families, the Bulgarian government and the European Union, we can commute the death sentence to a prison term’,” he said.

He said any compensation would include medical assistance for the infected children, and EU financing of Libya’s “national action plan against AIDS” and an eventual “partnership” between Brussels and Tripoli.

A Libyan lawyer who requested anonymity told AFP that the nurses could serve eventual jail sentences in Bulgaria thanks to an extradition treaty with Libya.

The families’ spokesman Idriss Lagha said Ferrero-Waldner had confirmed EU support for an international fund set up in 2005 for the families but that there was no “clear response” to proposals to increase compensation payments.

The relatives initially asked for compensation of 10 million euros for each victim, saying, however, that the amount was negotiable.

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