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Libya cuts medical team's sentences

Death penalty for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor is commuted, fueling hope they will be freed.

July 18, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Libya's top judicial authority on Tuesday commuted the death sentences of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of intentionally infecting more than 400 children with the virus that causes AIDS.

The sentences were reduced to life imprisonment after the children's families were paid millions of dollars in compensation, raising hopes that the six eventually will be returned to their home countries. They have spent more than eight years in a Libyan prison, all the while insisting that they are innocent.

"Thank God the death sentences were dropped," Zdravko Georgiev, a Bulgarian doctor and the husband of jailed nurse Kristiana Valcheva, told a Libyan radio interviewer.

But relatives and lawyers for the medical team said they were disappointed that full pardons were not granted.

Bulgaria said it would immediately launch efforts to bring the nurses home, but it remained unclear how long that might take.

"For us, the case will be over after the Bulgarian women come home," Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin said during a news conference in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, according to the Bulgarian news agency Focus. "We are ready to start work on the transfer immediately."

Libya's incarceration of the medical workers has roiled the scientific community, strained relations with the European Union and galvanized human rights and medical agencies who believe the group was being made a scapegoat for Libya's poor health conditions.

A Libyan court imposed the death sentence after convicting the six medical workers of deliberately infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood in the northeastern coastal city of Benghazi. Ignored in the proceedings were several independent reports by respected international experts who had determined that the infections probably were festering before the Bulgarian team's arrival in Benghazi and were caused by long-standing unsanitary practices in the hospital network.

Fifty of the children have died.

The nurses maintained that they had been tortured and raped to force confessions.

Libya's Supreme Court upheld the death sentence last week, but the Judicial Council, which pronounced the decision Tuesday, is a government authority that can overrule the courts.

The government of Moammar Kadafi, eager to gain acceptance in the West after decades as a pariah, has been under international pressure to resolve the case. Kadafi originally said the nurses infected the children as part of a plot by the West and Israel to use the AIDS virus as a weapon.

Kadafi's son, Seif Islam, recently suggested a compromise was in the works that would both free the foreigners and appease the Benghazi families. And the director of the Kadafi Foundation, which has been helping the children's families, said this week they had agreed to accept $1 million for each victim.

On Tuesday, Idriss Lagha, a spokesman for the families, was quoted by news agencies in Tripoli as saying that each family had received its $1 million payment.

He said the families' acceptance of the money implied that they had dropped their complaint against the medical workers and the demand for their execution, steps required under Islamic tradition.

Lagha indicated that the money was coming through an international "humanitarian" fund from several countries, including the U.S. and Bulgaria and other Balkan nations, as well as the EU. That would allow countries to give money without paying the families directly. Bulgaria had said it would not pay compensation because it might be taken as an implicit acknowledgment of guilt.

Tuesday's ruling was a relief for many of those who have championed the cause of the nurses and doctor. Uncertainty remained, however, concerning their immediate fate.

"This was not the best decision. It would have been better to see them pardoned," Harry Haralampiev, one of the defense attorneys, told Bulgaria's Nova television. But, he said, "we should settle for the lesser of two evils. The lives of the innocent nurses have been saved and this is what matters."

The Palestinian doctor recently received Bulgarian citizenship so he could benefit from that government's efforts to free the group.

In Washington, where the Bush administration recently named an ambassador to Tripoli after years in which the post was vacant, officials said they were encouraged by Tuesday's ruling but called for additional steps.

"We are urging the Libyan government to now find a way to allow the medics to return home," said Kurtis Cooper, a State Department spokesman.

The Bush administration says the medical workers were not given fair trials and that the infection of the children was a tragic occurrence that should be handled through an international fund and support for the families.

wilkinson@latimes.com

Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna and The Times' Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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