December 22, 2006
Libyan court condemns six deaths in AIDS trial

by Afaf Geblawi

LIBYA – A Libyan court Tuesday condemned to death five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of spreading HIV-AIDS among hundreds of children in hospital, in a verdict greeted with shock by the international community.

The defendants burst into tears on hearing the verdict while the families of sick or dead victims started to celebrate.

Defence lawyer Othman Bizanti told journalists that an appeal would be filed. The accused had worked at Al-Fateh hospital in Benghazi, Libya’s seaside second city on the Mediterranean, where it was alleged they had infected 426 children with HIV. All six pleaded not guilty.{{more}}

Bulgaria’s parliamentary speaker urged Libya not to carry out the sentences.

Amid international outrage over the case, EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini expressed shock and called for the verdict to be reviewed.

Christiana Malinova Valcheva, Valia Georgieva Cherveniashka, Nasia Stoitcheva Nenova, Valentina Manolova Siropulo and Snezhana Ivanova Dimitrova, were convicted along with the doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Juma.

The medics, held for the past seven years, had already been sentenced in May 2004 to face a firing squad, before Libya’s supreme court ordered a retrial following a December 2005 appeal.

The court ordered the Libyan state to pay the families between $250,000 and $900,000 for each victim. The families had demanded $15 million.

Prosecutors had called for the death penalty for the so-called Benghazi Six, despite reports in respected scientific journals in Britain and the United States rejecting the charges.

Defence lawyers argued that the children had been infected with HIV before the nurses began working at the hospital. In November, British medical journal The Lancet – in an editorial entitled “Free the Benghazi Six” – blasted the retrial as a miscarriage of justice with “no legal foundation”. It cited independent scientific evidence that the infections were caused by bad hygiene at the Benghazi hospital, and reports from human rights watchdogs that confessions had been extracted under torture. (Middle East Online News)