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Libyan court
convicts nurses and doctor of infecting children with HIV

Libyan court
convicts nurses and doctor of infecting children with HIV

A court convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor Tuesday of deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV and sentenced them to death, despite scientific evidence the youngsters had the virus before the medical workers came to Libya.

The United States and the European Union reacted with outrage to the verdict, which prolongs a case that has hurt Libya's ties to the West. The six codefendants already have served seven years in jail.

Earlier this month an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples taken from some of the children concluded that the viral strains were circulating at the hospital where they were treated well before the nurses and doctor arrived in March 1998, according to research published by the journal Nature.

There is widespread anger in Libya over the HIV infections, and the sentence brought cheers. The Libyan press has long depicted the medical workers as guilty.

After the sentence was pronounced, dozens of relatives outside the Tripoli court chanted, ''Execution! Execution!'' Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, shouted, ''God is great! Long live the Libyan judiciary!''

The ruling stunned the defendants. They were convicted and sentenced to death a year ago, but the Libyan supreme court ordered a retrial after an international outcry that the first trial was unfair. The case now returns to the supreme court for an automatic appeal.

''This sentence was another blow, another shock for us,'' Zdravko Georgiev, the husband of one of the nurses, Kristiana Valcheva, told the Associated Press in Bulgaria.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with Bulgarian foreign minister Ivailo Kalfin in Washington, D.C., said the United States was ''very disappointed with the outcome'' and urged the medical workers be freed and ''allowed to go home at the earliest possible date.''

The European Union said it was ''shocked'' by the verdict. Spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said the E.U. had not yet decided to take steps against Libya while the ruling is appealed--but he ''did not rule anything out.'' Bulgaria will join the E.U. on January 1.

The nurses and doctor have been in jail since 1999 on charges that they intentionally spread HIV to more than 400 children at a hospital in Benghazi during what Libya claims was a botched experiment to find a cure for AIDS. Fifty children have died, and the rest have been treated in Europe.

Bulgarian and European officials have blamed the infections on unhygienic practices at the hospital and accuse Libya of making the medical workers scapegoats.

The case has been deeply politicized from the start. International anger over the prosecution has hampered--though not halted--Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's efforts to end his pariah status with the West.

Over the summer, the United States restored ties with Libya, cut since 1980, and removed it from its terror list after Gadhafi renounced weapons of mass destruction and reached a compensation deal for victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland. The U.S. quietly reopened its embassy in Tripoli, but Rice has balked at visiting Libya.

Gadhafi's government faced intense popular pressure for a guilty verdict. Clashes broke out in Benghazi when the supreme court ordered a retrial in December. Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi has been a center for anti-Gadhafi Islamic fundamentalist groups, and an innocent verdict could have fueled opposition to the government--particularly if conditions at the hospital were blamed for the infections.

Gadhafi has tried to reach a deal by which Bulgaria would compensate the victims, a proposal the Bulgarian government has rejected, saying it would imply the nurses' guilt. The defendants have claimed they were tortured in detention, and two of the nurses--who are all women--said they were raped. A Libyan court acquitted several Libyan prison officials of the charge.

Some 50 relatives of the infected children demonstrated outside court Tuesday, holding poster-sized pictures of their children and bearing placards that read ''Death for the children killers'' and ''HIV made in Bulgaria.''

Inside, the defendants sat stony-faced and showed no reaction as the judge delivered the verdict.

In Bulgaria, President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev called the ruling ''absurd'' and urged Libyan authorities ''to intervene immediately'' to reconsider it and free the medics.

The case was sent immediately to the Libyan supreme court for appeal, but it was not known when the court would rule. If it upholds the ruling, the case goes to the judicial board, which can uphold or annul it, Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said.

An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, criticized the retrial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence. ''We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one,'' he said.

Luc Montagnier--the French doctor who was a codiscoverer of HIV--testified in the first trial that the AIDS virus was active in the hospital before the Bulgarian nurses began their contracts there in 1998.

More evidence for that argument surfaced on December 6--too late to be submitted in court--when Nature magazine published the analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from the children.

Using changes in the genetic information of HIV over time as a ''molecular clock,'' the analysts concluded the virus was contracted as much as three years before the defendants arrived at the hospital. (AP)

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