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THE WORLD

Libya delays decision on death sentences

The controversial case involves six medics convicted of infecting children with HIV.

July 17, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

TRIPOLI, LIBYA — The fate of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death for allegedly infecting children with the virus that causes AIDS remained in the hands of Libya's top judicial body Monday.

The controversial case has galvanized international scientists, politicians and human rights groups who say the charges are baseless.

The government-controlled Supreme Judicial Council can decide whether to affirm or annul the death penalty for the six defendants, who lost their appeal in Libya's Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The council on Monday delayed its decision until at least today as it waited for documents from the children's families that would affirm they are dropping their demand that the medics face the firing squad.

"Some of the families still insist on the execution of the accused," Ramadan Fitouri, chairman of the relatives association, told Bulgarian radio station Darik Radio on Monday. He said European countries were trying to force them to give up their demand by denying them visas to have their sick children treated in Europe.

The Libyan government has sent many of the children to Italian and French hospitals for care.

Also under discussion is the possibility of a deal to provide compensation of $1 million for each of the families of 438 Libyan children infected with HIV-tainted blood. European diplomats have been pressing Libyan officials to commute the death sentence, said a European official in Tripoli. The Palestinian doctor recently received Bulgarian citizenship so he could be included in the deal.

"The families have agreed to accept compensation of about $1 million for each victim," said Salah Abdelssalem, the director of Kadafi Foundation, which has been helping the victims' families. "After that, I don't know what will happen."

The six guest medics have been in prison for eight years since being blamed for causing an outbreak of HIV infections among children in Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, a town on Libya's northeastern coast. They were convicted in 2004 but appealed, saying they were innocent and their confessions were extracted by torture.

Since the case began, 56 children have died and about 20 mothers have been infected by their children, said Idriss Lagha, a spokesman for the families.

Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi once accused the nurses of being part of a plot by the CIA and Israeli intelligence to test AIDS as a biological weapon. He later recanted.

In January, Kadafi's son, Seif Islam, told a Bulgarian newspaper that a compromise would be found to avoid executions but satisfy the families of the infected children. He provided no details.

The case has become an international cause among scientists and human rights advocates who say the medics are foreign scapegoats for Libya's poor medical conditions. A detailed investigation by the World Health Organization in 1999 said the infections were caused by unsanitary conditions and the reuse of contaminated needles and transfusion equipment.

The Libyan government hired AIDS experts Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi to visit the hospital and analyze blood samples. Their 2003 report agreed that the infections were caused by unhygienic practices, and they detailed cases of the same strain of an African virus found in hospital patients in 1997, a year before the medics arrived. Colizzi said the virus was probably brought to Libya by African guest workers.

None of the outside scientific evidence was allowed into court. Libyan scientists wrote a counter-report contending that the virus was a unique, genetically modified strain and that the infection rate was too high to be caused by internal transmission.

The case has strained relations with the European Union. Officials were working on a deal in which a number of Eastern European countries would erase Libyan debt, a face-saving way to provide compensation to the victims without admitting that the Bulgarians were guilty or that the Libyan hospital authorities were negligent.

But the families have become a potent political force within Libya, where the case has emotional resonance. In a full-page article headlined, "Shed Your Tears for the AIDS Children," the Tripoli Post weekly railed against "the evil powers that betrayed our children and implanted in their veins the epidemic."

maggie.farley@latimes.com

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