Medics return to Bulgaria, receive presidential pardon

1168.jpgFive Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who faced the death penalty in Libya until last week, were pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov on Tuesday (July 24th), less than an hour after they landed in Sofia.

The medics, who were convicted of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV and first sentenced to death in 2004, spent more than eight years in jail in Tripoli. The same verdict was issued at the end of their retrial in December 2006, and was upheld by Libya’s Supreme Court earlier this month, despite evidence proving the health workers’ innocence.

After years of international pressure and following a deal, under which each of the families of the 438 infected children received $1m in compensation, Libya’s top legal body commuted the medics’ death sentences to life in prison on July 17th. Two days later, Sofia sent an official request to Tripoli, calling for their immediate repatriation to Bulgaria on the basis of a 1984 prisoner exchange agreement between the two countries.

Bulgarian nurses Kristiana Vulcheva, Nasya Nenova, Snezhana Dimitrova, Valentina Siropulo and Valya Chervenyashka and Palestinian doctor Ashraf Juma Hajuj — who was recently granted Bulgarian citizenship — were released from jail early Tuesday, following hours of intense negotiations between a European delegation and Libyan authorities.

The French presidential jet, on which France’s First Lady Cecilia Sarkozy and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner arrived to Tripoli on Sunday, then took the six medics to Sofia. Also on board was nurse Kristiana Vulcheva’s husband, Dr Zdravko Georgiev, who was acquitted of the same charge in 2004, but was not allowed to leave Libya.

The medics’ relatives, dozens of local and foreign reporters, Parvanov, Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev and other officials and diplomats were among the hundreds of people on hand to welcome the group at Sofia Airport.

“For over eight years, we have never forgotten the suffering of the medical staff, who have shown such dignity and fortitude during their long ordeal,” Ferrero-Waldner said at an improvised ceremony. “This excellent outcome is the result of sustained joint efforts by the EU bringing together the Bulgarian authorities, consecutive EU presidencies, and a number of other member states. This demonstrates the value of concerted EU action. The EU will always work tirelessly for justice for its citizens.”

Forty-five minutes after the medics’ return home, a presidential decree to pardon them was announced. “Led by the firm conviction in the innocence of the Bulgarian citizens sentenced in Libya and fulfilling his constitutional rights, the president signed a decree for pardon and releases them of their sentences,” Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin said, reading a statement issued by Parvanov’s office.

The medics thanked all who supported them over the years. “I waited so long for this moment,” Dimitrova said, while Vulcheva said she hoped to return to normal life.

The close of the case paves the way for the full normalisation of Libya’s relations with the EU, which also pledged Tuesday to implement “an improved framework to ensure the care dispensed to the children victim of AIDS in Libya”.

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