workers sentenced to life in prison in Libya after they were
accused of infecting children with HIV came home to
Bulgaria on Tuesday and were greeted with tears and
hugs--and a presidential pardon that allowed
them to walk free after 8 1/2 years behind bars.
Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were flown from
Tripoli to the jubilant welcome in Sofia on board a plane
with French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and the
European Union's commissioner for foreign affairs,
said the bloc would move to improve trade and political
ties with Libya after the release.
Libya had accused
the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan
children with HIV. Fifty of the children died. The medics,
jailed since 1999, deny infecting the children and say
their confessions were extracted under torture.
originally had been sentenced to death, but that was later
commuted to life in prison. Last week the Libyan government
agreed to a Bulgarian request to allow the six to
serve the rest of their sentence at home.
''Led by the firm
conviction in the innocence of the Bulgarian citizens
sentenced in Libya and fulfilling his constitutional rights,
the president signed a decree for pardon and releases
them of their sentences,'' Bulgarian foreign minister
Ivailo Kalfin said.
The six came down
the steps from the airplane and were welcomed on the
tarmac by family members who hugged them, one lifting the
Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, off the ground.
Bulgaria granted him citizenship last month.
''I waited so
long for this moment,'' nurse Snezhana Dimitrova said
before falling into the arms of her loved ones.
Valcheva, one of the released nurses, told reporters that
throughout their time in prison, they had kept alive the
hope of freedom.
''We were afraid
even to say aloud what we dreamed about,'' Valcheva said
with tears in her eyes.
''Now I still
can't believe that I am standing on Bulgarian soil. We were
told the news at 4 o'clock in the morning and we left the
jail at quarter to 6 to board the plane,'' she said.
''Now I will try to get my previous life back.''
From the airport,
the medics were whisked to a government residence in
the capital, where they will spend the next few days with
their relatives and away from the intense media
coverage of their release.
Along with the
release, Libya and the European Union agreed to develop a
''full partnership,'' with the Europeans promising a package
of aid to develop Libyan hospitals and other
infrastructure, Libyan foreign minister Abdul-Rahman
Shalqam, who did
not reveal how much aid the E.U. would provide, also
said the Bulgarian president had the right to pardon the
agreements between the two sides, it is the right of any
country after handing over the convicts to either implement
the verdict or to pardon them. It is the right of the
Bulgarian president to issue this pardon,'' Shalqam
told reporters in Tripoli.
agreement signed with Ferrero-Waldner, the E.U. promised to
provide ''lifelong treatment'' to the infected children as
well as aid to ''improve the Benghazi Hospital'' where
the children were infected, Shalqam said.
The E.U. also
committed to ''provide other aid for education, historical
antiquities, as well as support for security on Libya's
northern and southern borders to combat illegal
immigration,'' Shalqam said.
Nicolas Sarkozy said, however, that neither the E.U. nor
France paid money to Libya for the release. He said Qatar
mediated the release and hinted that the country may
have had a broader role in resolving the crisis.
He also announced
that he and French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner
would visit Libya Wednesday in a bid to ''help Libya rejoin
the international community.''
presidential palace said earlier that the deal included
measures to improve the medical care of children with AIDS
in Libya. It did not provide further details.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said the
E.U. would move to improve trade and political ties with
Libya after the release.
''We hope to go
on further [on] normalizing our relations with Libya. Our
relations with Libya were to a large extent blocked by the
non-settlement of this medics issue,'' Barroso told
He said the
27-nation bloc could move to include Libya in regional trade
and aid ties with other Mediterranean countries.
Bulgarian nurses traveled to Libya nearly a decade ago,
attracted by promises of higher-paying jobs. They were sent
through a Bulgarian recruitment agency to al-Fath
Children's Hospital in Benghazi, Libya's
second-largest city. The nurses were arrested the year after
Bulgarians were employed in the country in the 1980s,
according to Libyan officials, before the U.N. imposed
sanctions in 1993 and the links between the two
nations weakened. (Veselin Toshkov, AP)