Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Libya death-row medics in final appeal

Libya death-row medics in final appeal
Imed Lamloun | Tripoli, Libya
20 June 2007 12:29
Six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting Libyan children with Aids launched their final appeal on Wednesday after more than eight years behind bars for a crime they say they did not commit.

As the hearing opened, relatives of the victims rallied outside the Tripoli courtroom, holding up pictures of their infected children, many of whom have died.

Libya's Supreme Court is expected to uphold the death penalty against the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, but the verdict is expected to pave the way for a compensation package and for the sentences to be commuted.

However, a verdict is not expected on Wednesday.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi's son, Seif al-Islam, has said he expected compensation for the infected children's families to be worked out between the Bulgarian government and the European Union.

"Immediately after the verdict, we will begin to work ... on a package [of measures] with a view to a solution," Islam told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Libyan sources close to the case said that provided the package was agreed, a final decision on the medics' fate could be reached by the end of the week.

The medics were first arrested in February 1999 and were sentenced to death in May 2004 after being convicted of infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood at a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi.

Fifty-six children have since died.

The accused have denied the charges and foreign health experts have said the Aids pandemic in Benghazi, Libya's second city, was probably the result of poor hygiene.

The case has sparked mounting criticism from the European Union and the United States and hindered Libya's efforts at rapprochement with the West after Gadaffi's regime renounced efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction in December 2003.

US President George Bush appealed for the release of the medics last week during a visit to Bulgaria.

"They should be released and they should be allowed to return to their families. We will continue to make clear to Libya that the release of these nurses is a higher priority" for Bulgaria, Bush said.

A date for the final appeal hearing was only decided after senior EU diplomats, including External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, visited Libya earlier this month.

Othman al-Bizanti, a Libyan lawyer for the medics, has said he will ask for an adjournment on Wednesday as he has not had enough time to prepare a defence.

Journalists covering the hearing are being kept in a separate room, where images from the court are being transmitted but showing only the four judges.

The five nurses -- Kristiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valya Cherveniashka, Valentina Siropulo, and Snezhana Dimitrova -- and the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Juma Hajuj, are said to have suffered depression and other mental stress during their lengthy wait on death row.

Sofia on Tuesday said it had granted Hajuj Bulgarian citizenship as it would allow his extradition to Bulgaria together with the nurses in the event of a favourable outcome of their case.

Gadaffi's son said any compensation for the victims would include medical assistance for the infected children and EU financing of a Libyan national action plan against Aids.

The relatives initially asked for compensation of €10-million for each victim, saying, however, that the amount was negotiable. -- Sapa-AFP

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