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Health workers tell of Libya ordeal

The nurses and doctor accused of infecting children with HIV talk about their misery and voice criticism of the response to their plight.

August 01, 2007|Julia Damianova | Special to The Times

SOFIA, BULGARIA — The low point for Bulgarian nurse Nasya Nenova came when she reportedly chewed the veins of her wrists in a desperate attempt to commit suicide.

Dr. Ashraf Alhajouj said he endured the 8 1/2 years in a rough Libyan prison by embroidering and by scratching slogans into the wall of his cell.

The two, along with four other Bulgarian nurses, and a Bulgarian doctor who initially had been jailed with them, were freed last week in a swirl of diplomacy and money. They had been convicted and sentenced to death on charges that they deliberately infected hundreds of Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS.

Since their flight to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, details that have emerged in interviews with The Times, news conferences and other public accounts sketch an ordeal that was both horrific and tedious. It included torture early on but evolved, with conditions improving even as death by firing squad loomed.

They are now trying to regain their health, which includes overcoming physical and psychological injuries, and contemplating legal action against their jailers. They also express resentment over how their cases were handled by Bulgarian officials and leaders of Arab governments, which, they say, should have been their most vigorous advocates.

Strangers to friends

"We were treated like animals," Alhajouj, 38, said in an interview with a small group of journalists, noting that he was initially locked up in a small cell with dogs. "For [the first] 10 months my family didn't know even if I am alive or dead. They were looking all over Libya for me."

Alhajouj, an Egyptian-born Palestinian, spoke in English and broken Bulgarian. He had lived most of his life in Libya, though the nurses, for the most part, arrived in the late 1990s.

He did not know the women before the arrests; what they had in common was work at the same squalid Benghazi hospital where the children became infected. The group came to be friends over the long years of hearings and incarceration, and he learned to speak a little Bulgarian.

Alhajouj, Nenova and some of the other former prisoners have given harrowing descriptions of electric shock torture, sleep deprivation, beatings and the use of anesthesia. This mistreatment drove Nenova to attempt to kill herself about two months after her arrest by biting the veins in her wrists, according to an account her mother, Stanka Nenova, gave the Bulgarian newspaper Standard.

Their captors told them they would die if they did not confess, several said. And so a false confession from Nasya Nenova was used to build the case against the group.

"They told me that if it wasn't me" who infected more than 400 children, "then I must know who did," Nenova said at a news conference. "And throughout all these difficult years I was asking myself, 'Why was it me that was chosen to be accused of this evil deed?' "

She still wants to know why.

Alhajouj never contemplated suicide, he said, and kept his spirits up with what he described as unwavering faith in God and in his innocence.

"I [knew] that one day, everything will be clear enough for everybody in the whole world that we are really innocent and that we are really victims," he said.

To pass the time, the young doctor scrawled messages on the walls of his cell such as: "Hope is the last to die" and, in Arabic, Bulgarian and English, "I will remain as a sting in your throat for the whole of my life."

Libyan authorities, before releasing the six health workers, reduced their death sentences to life in prison. When they were finally flown to Bulgaria, after hundreds of millions of dollars were paid to the Libyans, the president of Bulgaria pardoned them.

Formally, Libya is protesting the Bulgarian pardon, with Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham saying his government feels "betrayed."

In reality, the regime of Col. Moammar Kadafi is benefiting considerably, earning kudos in the West and the promise of new trade agreements and enhanced political status for the erstwhile pariah state.

Kadafi's powerful son Seif Islam dismissed concerns about the pardon and suggested that any controversy would pass.

The health workers' release "was a good deal for Libya," the younger Kadafi told Reuters news agency this week. "It's a good deal in our relations with the West, and with ourselves. It's good to put an end to this tragedy -- a happy ending for all parties."

Little outside contact

While they adjust to freedom, several of the former prisoners have complained that they felt neglected by their government. Days passed before a representative of the Bulgarian government saw them in jail, the nurses said, and he did not see all of them. The others were held back by their captors because their injuries from torture were visible, the nurses said.

And meetings with Bulgarian diplomats were always attended by a Libyan official, making it impossible for them to reveal the horrors they were suffering.

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