- A court in Libya today sentenced six Bulgarians for deliberately infecting hundreds of children with HIV in the country. In handing down the verdict before a crowded Tripoli court, Judge Mahmoud Haouissa said, "in the name of the people and after reviewing the documents and hearing the arguments by lawyers of both sides, the court decided on death sentences".
He added that the court was convinced that the health experts were responsible for spreading the disease that caused death among the victims. Judge Mahmoud also ruled that each of the families of the victims must be compensated over US$ 13 million.
Since 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor have been detained and later charged with infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV. 52 of the children have succumbed to AIDS.
The medics were handed down the same sentence in 2004 but after several protests questioning the impartiality of the trial, Libya's Supreme Court looked into the verdict. Since the start of the case, countries in the west had called for the release of the health experts but Tripoli authorities refused to listen.
The accused medics had always maintained their innocence to the charge, adding that they were being made scapegoats of unhygienic Libyan hospitals. They also said they only "confessed" to have committed the crime after they were tortured.
Defence attorneys argued that before the health experts started work in 1998, HIV virus had existed in the hospital of Benghazi, Libya's second city. They therefore ruled out the possibility of their clients infecting Libyan children.
Defence attorneys said their clients would appeal against today's judgment.
While the Bulgarian government received the news with shock, families of the infected children celebrated and commended the judges for speaking with the voice of justice for the second time. They described the health professionals as criminals who must be punished for violating their obligations as well as selling their conscience to the devil.
Outside the court, some relatives of the victims could be seen crying while the verdict was being handed down. Others protested holding banners against the outcome of a study published in the scientific journal, 'Nature', that the medical experts were not responsible for the crime.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Ivailo Kalfin, sharply reacted to the verdict, describing it as "deeply disappointing". Bulgaria has just entered the European Union (EU) as a full member. Believing that any payment is tantamount to accepting guilt, Bulgarian authorities rejected the judge's claim for compensation.
"We appeal to the international community to categorically denounce the court's decision and join the appeal for the Libyan side to immediately release the condemned," 'Reuters' quoted Bulgarian Speaker of Parliament, Georgi Pirinski as saying.
The EU Commissioner for Justice, Franco Frattini, condemned the sentence, warning Libya to avoid risking its relations with the bloc. He said he has received the news with shock and disbelief and asked Libya to review the verdict.
For Amnesty International, the Libya verdict is a "judicial murder" in a country that has been accused of gross violations of rights, including torture.
Libyan Foreign Minister, Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Shalgham defended that the verdict would not taint his country's international credentials. "Libya's image at the moment is perfect," Mr Shalgham told a news conference. He said Libyan government gains no interest in sentencing the health experts to death if they are innocent. "So in this sense the country's image is not in danger".
Mr Shalgham further said the ruling is not final because it will be contested at the Supreme Court before it goes before the country's highest court, Supreme Council of Justice. He said the government has no hands in the ruling arguing, "when there is a conflict between two countries, it is settled in the courtroom".
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