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Old December 19th, 2006, 02:27 PM  
Maverick
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Default Libya Sentences Bulgaria Nurses to Death

TRIPOLI, Libya Dec 19, 2006 (AP)— A court convicted six foreign health workers Tuesday on charges of deliberately infecting 400 children with the AIDS virus and sentenced them to death, setting off shouts of joy in Tripoli.
The verdict, which will be automatically referred to Libya's Supreme Court, drew quick condemnation from European nations, which have charged that the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were being made scapegoats. A Western medical study, released too late for the trial, said the infections occurred before the medical workers came to Libya.
The United States and European Union had called for the release of the defendants, warning that the case would affect Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's effort to repair his rogue image and rebuild ties with the West.
But Libyans strongly supported a conviction. A few dozen relatives of infected children about 50 of whom have died of AIDS waited outside the court holding poster-sized pictures of their children and placards reading "Death for the children killers" and "HIV made in Bulgaria."
After the verdict, the crowd chanted "Execution! Execution!"
"God is great!" yelled Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, as soon as the presiding judge finished reading the verdict. "Long live the Libyan judiciary!"
The nurses and doctor have been in jail since 1999 on charges that they intentionally spread the AIDS virus to more than 400 children at a hospital in the city of Benghazi during a botched experiment to find a cure for the disease.
Western nations blame the infections on unsanitary conditions at Libyan hospitals and accuse Tripoli of using the six workers as scapegoats.
Bulgaria and the EU swiftly condemned the verdict.
"Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak in Benghazi," Bulgaria's parliament speaker, Georgi Pirinski, said in the capital, Sofia.
EU spokesman Johannes Laitenberger in Brussels, Belgium, said the bloc's leaders were "shocked by this verdict." He said there was no immediate decision on EU action against Libya but said he "did not rule anything out."
France, where about 150 of the infected children have been treated, reacted strongly.
"France deplores this verdict," said Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, adding that his government was "fundamentally opposed" to the death penalty.
The chief Bulgarian counsel for the workers, Trayan Markovski, said the defendants would appeal to the Libyan Supreme Court. Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam told reporters the verdict would automatically be referred to the Supreme Court.
He added that after the Supreme Court review, the case would also be heard by the Judicial Board, which could overturn the ruling. He described the case as having "a political dimension," alluding to international pressure on Libya to free the defendants.
Presiding Judge Mahmoud Hawissa took just seven minutes to confirm the presence of the accused who all answered "yes" in Arabic and read the judgment in the longest and most politicized court process in modern Libyan history.
The five Bulgarians and the Palestinian did not react.
Detained for nearly seven years, the defendants had previously been convicted and condemned to death, but Libyan judges granted them a retrial last year after international protests over the fairness of the proceedings.
An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, criticized the retrial as lacking scientific rigor. "We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one," Cantier said after the verdict.
On Dec. 6, too late for use in the trial, Nature magazine published an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from the children. Using changes in the genetic information of HIV over time as a "molecular clock," analysts concluded the virus was contracted before the six defendants arrived at the hospital perhaps even three years before.
Oxford University, which took part in the study, issued a statement saying the verdict "runs counter to the conclusion reached by a research team from Oxford University's Zoology Department who, in collaboration with several European universities, showed that the subtype of HIV involved began infecting patients long before March 1998, the date the prosecution claims the crime began."
Idriss Lagha, president of a group representing the victims, has rejected the Nature article, telling a news conference Monday in London that the nurses had infected the children with a "genetically engineered" virus. He accused them as doing so for research on behalf of foreign intelligence agencies.
In testimony last month, the defendants denied intentionally infecting children.
"No doctor or nurse would dare commit such a dreadful crime," said nurse Cristiana Valcheva, adding that she sympathized with the victims and their families.
A second Bulgarian, Valentina Siropulo, testified that of her seven years in Libya, "I've spent only 6 months working as a nurse and the rest of the time in prison."
Gadhafi, who has been trying to refashion his image from leader of a rogue state, got his government to ask Bulgaria to pay compensation to the children's families.
But Bulgaria rejected the idea as indicating an admission of the nurses' guilt.
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