Death row medics launch last-ditch appeal in Libya

TRIPOLI (AFP) — Six foreign medics on death row for infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus launched a final appeal on Wednesday after more than eight years behind bars for a crime they say they did not commit.

Relatives of the victims staged a rally outside the Tripoli courtroom as the hearing got under  way, holding up pictures of their infected children, 56 of whom have died.

The five accused Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who was this week granted Bulgarian citizenship were not in court.

Libya’s supreme court is expected to uphold the death sentences against the six medics, but the verdict is expected to pave the way for a compensation package and for the sentences to be commuted.

Judicial sources said the victim’s families renewed their call for the death penalty and the public prosecutor was expected to follow suit.

The doctor’s lawyer, Tuhani Tumi, called for the verdict to be scrapped saying any confession had been extracted under torture, while the nurses’ lawyer submitted a 100-page document arguing there was no proof of guilt.

Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s son, Seif Islam, has said he expected compensation for the infected children’s families 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 was agreed, a final decision on the medics’ fate could be reached by the end of the week.

Libya’s highest court has the authority to commute the death sentences to prison terms that could be served in Bulgaria which has an extradition treaty with Tripoli, a Libyan lawyer said on condition of anonymity.

The medics were first arrested in February 1999 and sentenced to death in May 2004 after being convicted of infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood at a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi.

The accused have denied the charges and foreign health experts, led by AIDS virus discoverer Luc Montagnier, have said the epidemic in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, was probably the result of poor hygiene.

The case has sparked mounting criticism from the EU and the United States and hindered Libya’s efforts at rapprochment with the West after Qadhafi’s regime renounced efforts to develop mass destruction weapons in December 2003.

US President George W. Bush appealed for the release of the medics last week during a visit to Bulgaria.

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.

Apart from a brief spell inside, journalists covering the hearing were being kept in a separate room, where images from the court were being transmitted.

The nurses — Kristiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valya Cherveniashka, Valentina Siropulo, and Snezhana Dimitrova — and the doctor, Ashraf Juma Hajuj, are said to have suffered depression and other mental stress during their lengthy wait on death row.

Sofia on Tuesday said it has granted Hajuj, a resident of Libya since the age of five, Bulgarian citizenship as it would allow him to be extradited to Bulgaria along with the nurses.

Qadhafi’s son said any compensation for the victims would include medical assistance for the infected children and EU financing of a Libyan national action plan against AIDS.

The relatives initially asked for compensation of 10 million euros (about $13 million) for each victim, saying, however, the amount was negotiable.

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