Libya says ball in EU court over medics’ fate

Libya said on Wednesday the ball is in Europe’s court over the fate of six foreign medics reprieved from a death sentence for infecting children with the AIDS virus but who are still anxiously waiting to return home after eight years behind bars.Libya’s highest judicial body on Tuesday commuted to life in prison the death sentences of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor after a multimillion- dollar compensation deal was hammered out with victims’ families.

But Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelrahaman Shalgham said the case was “not closed” and that Tripoli was still awaiting guarantees regarding the treatment of the infected children.

“The ball is in the court of Bulgaria and the European Union,” he said.

The six medics, who have been on death row since 2004, could serve out their sentences in Bulgaria, as the two countries have an extradition treaty and the Palestinian was recently granted Bulgarian citizenship.

Shalgham told journalists that talks will take place shortly on how existing EU commitments will be met, without providing any further details.

A compensation fund for the children, who were infected in a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi, was set up in 2005 by Tripoli and Sofia under EU auspices.

The Qadhafi Foundation run by Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s son Seif Al Islam which has been involved in mediating the crisis said the compensation amounts to about $1 million  per child.

“The question of time is important, but it must be addressed by all parties and not just Libya,” Shalgham said.

Bulgaria said it had begun steps to secure the transfer, and that the relevant documents will be sent to Tripoli on Wednesday.

“The procedure around the transfer… is already under way. I will request that the medical workers be allowed to serve out their sentences at home,” chief prosecutor Boris Velchev said.

Speculation was rife in local media that if the six are transferred to Bulgaria, President Georgy Parvanov will pardon them immediately. Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev have refrained from commenting on the case until they have officially received the ruling of Libya’s supreme judicial council.

Washington and the European Union joined in calling on Tripoli to send the medics home after the final legal hurdle in a case that has dragged on for eight years and strained ties between Libya and the West.

“We urge the Libyan government to now find a way to allow the medics to return home,” US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, who said Washington was “encouraged” by the lifting of the death sentences.

The European Commission described the ruling of the supreme judicial council as a “relief” while adding that the objective remained “their transfer to the EU as soon as possible”. “The decision of Libya’s supreme judicial council is a big step in the right direction but for us the case will be over when our compatriots return to Bulgaria,” Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin said.

“This decision rules out the worst, the death penalty, and opens the way for triggering a prisoner transfer treaty we have with Libya.” The medics, who have been behind bars since 1999, were convicted of deliberately injecting 438 children in a Benghazi hospital with HIV-tainted blood. Fifty-six children have since died.

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