December 20, 2006
Libya Sentences 6 to Die in H.I.V. Case
By CRAIG S. SMITH
PARIS, Dec. 19 — A Libyan court on Tuesday again sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to be shot by a firing squad for deliberately infecting more than 400 children with H.I.V.
, more than 50 of whom have died. The decision complicates Libya
’s efforts to improve relations with the West.
The verdict drew expressions of anger and alarm from Bulgaria and its supporters in the nearly eight-year-old case, which now appears likely to drag on for months, if not years, more.
“We are going to urge the Libyan political leadership to engage in the process,” Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Ivaylo Kalfin, said from Washington, where he met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
hours after the verdict was announced.
Mr. Kalfin said his country was working through the Libyan Foreign Ministry to ask the nation’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi
, and political institutions to intervene on the ground that an inefficient and biased judicial system had failed to deal with the case credibly.
Lawyers for the medical workers said they would appeal to Libya’s Supreme Court.
The episode began in February 1998 when the nurses arrived to take up jobs at Al Fateh Children’s Hospital in Benghazi, the country’s second largest city. By August that year, children at the hospital began testing positive for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. Health authorities soon realized they had a major problem. Ω A
An investigation concluded that the infections came from the wards where the Bulgarian nurses had been assigned. Dozens of Bulgarian medical workers were arrested, and vials of H.I.V.-tainted blood were found in a videotaped search of one nurse’s apartment.
According to a Libyan intelligence report submitted to the court, that nurse, Kristiyana Vulcheva, later confessed that the vials had been given to her by a British friend who was working in Libya. She said she and her colleagues had used the vials to infect the children.
Colonel Qaddafi subsequently charged that the health care workers had acted on the orders of the Central Intelligence Agency
and Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad.
A Benghazi court eventually convicted five nurses and a Palestinian doctor of deliberately injecting the children with the virus. But Ms. Vulcheva and another nurse said they were tortured into confessing, and international AIDS experts — including Luc Montagnier, the French virologist and a co-discoverer of H.I.V. — concluded that the virus predated the nurses’ arrival and was probably spread by contaminated needles.
The medical workers were sentenced to death in May 2004, which led to difficult negotiations among Libya, Bulgaria, the United States and the European Union
to find out a way out of the impasse.
Finally, last December, the four announced that they were setting up an international fund to cover medical care and other costs incurred by the families of the H.I.V.-infected children. Libya’s Supreme Court quashed the death sentences two days later and called for a retrial, this time by a court in the capital, Tripoli.
The families have asked that Bulgaria or other donors provide $10 million per child, the same amount that Libya agreed to pay each of the families of the 270 people killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, for which Libya has accepted responsibility.
The families have said they would agree to release the nurses and the doctor if their request was satisfied. Under Libyan law, victims’ families have the power to grant clemency in return for compensation.
But only a few million dollars in cash, services and equipment has been donated to the fund; some of that was used to treat the children in Europe this year. Talks over further donations stalled while the trial was under way, apparently because, the Libyan families said, Bulgaria had hoped the new court would find the nurses not guilty.
But on Tuesday, the presiding judge, Mahmoud Hawissa, announced the latest guilty verdict in a seven-minute hearing. The Bulgarian foreign minister and defense lawyers argue that this trial was as equally flawed as the previous one.
Emmanuel Altit, a French lawyer in Paris who worked on the defense team, said: “The question of torture by electricity, proof that the nurses had been beaten, sexually harassed, kept for six months without contact, the question of fabricated evidence, none of this was discussed at all. The court refused to hear our experts.”
The justice commissioner of the European Union, Franco Frattini, called on Libyan authorities to rethink their handling of the case, calling it “an obstacle to cooperation with the E.U.” Bulgaria will become a member of the union on Jan. 1.
But for those Libyans who believe the nurses are guilty, the verdict was a foregone conclusion, even if their execution is not. Ramadan al-Faitore, whose 4-year-old stepsister was among the first to die, predicted earlier this month that the medical workers would be sentenced to death but not executed.
“No one will kill the nurses,” Mr. Faitore said in Paris, echoing a statement made by Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif two years ago. Mr. Faitore said the nurses’ freedom would depend on donations to the international fund. “After the trial, negotiations will start again,” he said.
Mr. Kalfin, the Bulgarian foreign minister, said his country was committed to making sure that the fund would “provide lifelong medical treatment for the children and create conditions that would prevent this from ever happening again.”
But he bristled at the suggestion that Bulgaria would pay “blood money” for the release of the nurses, calling such talk cynical.
Standing in a muddy field across the street from the Libyan Embassy in Sofia, Zorka Anachkova, the mother of Ms. Vulcheva, the nurse, said she wasn’t surprised by the verdict.
“What kind of negotiations can you have for innocent people?” she asked. “All the evidence proves their innocence. Their innocence is axiomatic. What else is there to talk about?”