Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Bulgarian Nurses, Freed by Libya, Arrive in Sofia (Update4)

Bulgarian Nurses, Freed by Libya, Arrive in Sofia (Update4)

By Elizabeth Konstantinova

July 24 (Bloomberg) -- Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who faced the death penalty for infecting Libyan children with HIV, landed in Sofia after eight years in a Libyan prison.

The six medics were flown home in a French government plane early today.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev met them at Sofia airport. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, Cecilia, and European Union foreign affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who negotiated their release with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, were with the medics.

Their return opens the way to normal relations between Libya and the EU's 27 member states. The French president said at a news conference in Paris that he will fly to Tripoli tomorrow to see Qaddafi and ``help Libya rejoin the concert of nations.''

This ``is a joyous day for Europe and Bulgaria, Ferrero- Waldner said in Sofia. ``This is a new page for Libya's relations with Europe.''

The six were allowed out under a prisoner-exchange accord between Bulgaria and Libya under which they could serve their sentences at home. The Bulgarian president pardoned them on arrival, meaning they went free immediately. The Palestinian doctor was granted Bulgarian nationality last month.

Presidential Pardon

``Guided by the firm conviction of the innocence of the Bulgarian citizens unjustly convicted in Libya and using the power given to him by the constitution, the Bulgarian President issued a decree pardoning them,'' Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin announced at Sofia airport.

European Commission President Jose Barroso said the release brought ``a moment of relief, emotion, of happiness.'' In a conversation with Qaddafi yesterday, ``I told him that, if this matter was settled, we will do our best to further normalize'' relations, Barroso told reporters in Brussels.

Libya's High Judicial Council, its top legal body, on July 19 overturned death sentences handed down in 2004. The six have been in custody since 1999 on charges they knowingly injected 426 Libyan children with HIV-tainted blood while working at a Benghazi hospital. Fifty-six of the children died. The medical workers denied wrongdoing and said they were tortured to extract confessions.

Lockerbie Bombing

The case prevented Libya from restoring ties with the U.S. and the EU after years of sanctions following the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people died. In 2003, Libya agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to families of Lockerbie victims.

Bulgaria, which joined the EU on Jan. 1 and is part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, sought international support to help free the nurses. It worked with international aid organizations to set up a fund to treat the infected children and improve care in the Benghazi hospital.

Cecilia Sarkozy first visited Libya on July 12 and saw the jailed medics and families of some of the infected children. She also met twice with Qaddafi, the Elysee Palace, the French presidency, said at the time. Accompanied by Elysee secretary- general Claude Gueant, she returned to Tripoli for the final negotiations on July 22.

The medics' sentences were commuted after the families of the infected children dropped their death-sentence demands in return for $460 million in compensation negotiated with the help of the EU and Libya's Qaddafi Foundation, Kalfin said.

Death Sentences

``Neither Europe nor France made the slightest financial contribution to Libya,'' Sarkozy said today.

The death sentences were first handed down in 2004 and confirmed by a court in Tripoli in December 2006 and by Libya's Supreme Court on July 16.

Judges in the original trial rejected the testimony of French, Italian and Swiss scientists who said the infections were caused by poor hygiene before the nurses worked at the hospital. Luc Montagnier, of Paris's Pasteur Institute and co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, was among the scientists who testified in the medics' defense.

``I still can't believe that I am standing on Bulgarian soil,'' Kristiana Valcheva, one of the five nurses, told state Channel 1 television. ``I want my life to return to what it was before all this happened.''

Prime Minister Stanishev said the outcome was ``the result of concentrated efforts of several Bulgarian governments and of the very strong solidarity and support of the European Union.''

The medics, after a physical checkup, will be taken to the Boyana government residence where President Parvanov and the prime minister have their official homes, he told Channel 1.

``They will spend several days in Boyana with their relatives to start their recovery after everything they've been through,'' Stanishev said.

U.S. President George W. Bush congratulated Parvanov in a phone call. ``You and your administration took very decisive measures,'' Bush said, according to an e-mail from the Bulgarian president's press office. ``This is a wonderful cause for joy. Despite our participation, the merit is yours.'' Bush last month urged Libya to release the medics immediately.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Konstantinova in Sofia at ekonstantino@bloomberg.net

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