Tripoli, Libya: Libya’s Supreme Court has upheld the death sentences of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting more than 400 children with HIV.
But the verdict issued by Judge Fathi Dahan is not the final word. Libya’s Supreme Judicial Council, which is headed by the minister of justice, could approve or reject the convictions or set lighter sentences.
“The court has accepted the appeal in principal but rejects its content, therefore the court decided to uphold the verdict against them,” Dahan told the courtroom. The five nurses and the Palestinian doctor were not present.
In announcing the verdict, the judge mentioned nothing about a settlement announced a day earlier by a foundation headed by Seif al Islam, son of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The Gadhafi International Foundation for Charity Associations said on 10 July that the families of the HIV-infected children reached an agreement with the nurses and doctor, but would not say whether the deal involved financial compensation for the families.
Libyan officials have said the families’ acceptance of a compensation settlement was key to resolving the case. It would satisfy Islamic law and allow the death sentence to be withdrawn, they say.
Libya has been under intense international pressure to free the six, who deny infecting the children. The case has become a sticking point in Libya’s attempts to rebuild ties with the United States and Europe. US President George W. Bush called on Libya last month to free the medics.
Vladimir Chukov, a history professor and expert on Middle East affairs in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, said the court’s decision satisfies the relatives of the children and Libyan public opinion.
“But, ironically, it could be positive for the medics as well, because it marks the end of the yearlong judicial procedures. Their case is moving now on a political level and we hope that through negotiations it will end with their release,” he said.
The six began working at the hospital in the city of Benghazi in 1998 and were arrested the next year after more than 400 children there contracted HIV. Fifty of the children have died.
The prosecution insists that the six infected the children intentionally in experiments to find a cure for AIDS. Defence experts testified that the children were infected by unhygienic hospital conditions. In their testimony, the workers said the confessions used by the prosecution had been extracted under torture. Several of the nurses have said they were also raped to force confessions.
The medical workers, who have been in custody since 1999, were convicted and sentenced to death in 2004, but the Supreme Court ordered a retrial after an international outcry over the verdicts.
In a ruling that shocked many in Europe, the second trial ended with the same verdict in December despite a scientific report weeks earlier saying HIV was rampant in the hospital before the six began working there.
Two Libyans — a police officer and a doctor — were put on trial on charges of torturing them and were later acquitted — which led to the six medics being put on a new trial for defamation. They were acquitted of defamation in May.