A Libyan court Thursday sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death on charges they intentionally infected more than 400 children with HIV as part of an experiment to find a cure. A sixth Bulgarian, a doctor, received four years in prison for changing foreign currency on the black market. He stood trial for infecting patients with HIV, but his verdict did not mention that charge, and no explanation was given for the change. Human rights groups have alleged that Libya concocted the experiment story to cover up for unsafe practices in its hospitals and clinics.
As soon as the sentences of death by firing squad were announced by Fadallah el-Sherif, the head of the five-judge panel that heard the case, five relatives of the infected children shouted "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great!" The Bulgarian nurses, all women, were identified as Kristiyana Valcheva, Nassya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka, and Snezhana Dimitrova. The Palestinian doctor was identified as Ashraf Gomaa, and the Bulgarian doctor was identified as Zdravko Georgiev. Under Libyan law death sentences generate an automatic appeal.
Bulgarian government spokesman Dimitar Tsonev criticized the verdict. "This trial cannot be called just, as not a single proof provided by the defense has been taken into account," Tsonev said. "The verdict is based solely on confessions made by some of the defendants under duress."
Prosecutors demanded death sentences, accusing the defendants of intentionally infecting more than 400 children with HIV-contaminated blood as part of an experiment to find a cure for AIDS. Twenty-three of the children reportedly have died of AIDS. Libya initially claimed the infections were part of a conspiracy by the CIA and Israeli intelligence, although it later backed away from those allegations. Luc Montagnier, the French codiscoverer of the AIDS virus, testified that poor hygiene at the Benghazi hospital is likely to have led to the contamination. He estimated it happened in 1997--more than a year before the defendants were hired to work there. A commission of court-appointed Libyan doctors rejected his testimony.
The European Union, Amnesty International, and other organizations have criticized the proceedings. Bulgarian foreign minister Solomon Pasi said the medics were tortured severely. The defendants said they were jolted with electricity, beaten with sticks, and repeatedly jumped on while strapped to their beds. Two of the women said they were raped.
There was no word on when the appeal process would begin. The health workers have already been imprisoned for more than four years. The doctor convicted of exchanging foreign currency on the black market was released from prison because he has already been jailed for longer than his court-ordered sentence, according to Libyan officials. (AP)