Six foreign medics sentenced to death then life imprisonment in Libya in a controversial AIDS case were free in the Bulgarian capital Tuesday after the EU struck a multi-million-dollar financial and trade deal with Tripoli.The five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor who also has Bulgarian citizenship were released early in the day and were flown to Sofia on board a French government jet.
They were accompanied by French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who had both been working hard for their release.
The six had been given death sentences commuted to life imprisonment for allegedly infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood in a Libyan hospital, despite testimony by internationally respected AIDS researchers that poor hygiene was to blame. Fifty-six of the children have since died.
Â “What kept me going was the fact that I am innocent and that I believe that if there is no human justice, there is God’s justice and it will come some day,” one nurse, Kristiana Valcheva, told Bulgarian television.
“In the coming days I will try to learn how to be free. Thank God it is over. I hope to start my life anew.” Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov immediately pardoned the six, and lashed out at Libya.
“It is a pity that the Libyan judiciary did not take into account the undeniable judicial and scientific evidence of the medics’ innocence. It did not consider the glaring abuses of our compatriots’ human rights,” he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Europe had not paid “the slightest financial compensation” for the medics’ release.
But others, including Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul Rahman Shalgham, said that both Paris and Brussels had contributed to the deal’s bottom line.
The Qadhafi Foundation, run by Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s son Seif Al Islam, said that about $1 million per infected child had been paid.
An EU “memorandum” unveiled by Ferrero-Waldner committed the European Commission to paying $461 million from a fund it had set up â€” named after the Libyan town of Benghazi where the HIV infections occurred â€” to a Libyan economic and social development fund.
Ferrero-Waldner said the money, which may be added to by member states, was not too high a price.
“It’s about the lives of people who were in jail for eight-and-a-half years,” she said. “From a tragic situation we have hope for a whole region.” A spokesman for the families of the HIV-infected children, Idriss Lagha, told AFP in Libya that some families were already spending their compensation.
He said some now drove luxury cars, others had made donations to a paediatric hospital and a mosque, and a few of the men had opted to take a second wife.
The international community was quick to hail the outcome â€” credit for which was widely claimed.
Sarkozy, who is to visit Tripoli on Wednesday, said: “We solved a problem…. We had to get them out, we got them out. That is what counts.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressed that much of the “long and difficult” negotiations had been conducted in the first half of this year, when Germany held the rotating EU presidency.
The White House said Bulgaria had thanked President George W. Bush “for the assistance and support of the United States resulting in the safe return of the Bulgarian nurses and doctor.” Russia’s foreign ministry praised Tripoli for its “constructive approach” and said: “Russia was among the first countries Sofia turned to for aid in resolving this drama, and throughout Russia was taking steps both political and otherwise to ease the fate of jailed medics.” The European Commission and France also highlighted a mysterious contribution by Qatar.
A joint statement by Sarkozy and Barroso spoke of “their profound gratitude to the emir and to the state of Qatar, whose mediation allowed this happy outcome”. Neither gave details, and Qatari officials declined to comment.
Â Rights groups, though, were outraged at the treatment experienced by the medics, who said their confessions early in the case were extracted under torture.
This was a “case that has been riddled with injustice and caused enormous suffering to all involved,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
Physicians for Human Rights warned that “there is nothing to prevent the future scapegoating of foreign health workers and holding them hostage in exchange for foreign aid”.Â One of the freed nurses speaking to Bulgarian television, Snezhana Dimitrova, said: “I want to forget the horror we lived through, I do not want to talk about it, I even spared my family the details about what we really went through.” The grey-haired, hollow-cheeked woman added that “I left there a country [Libya] with a vicious problem. I regret that I was chosen as one of the scapegoats for solving it.”