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A joyous welcome for medics freed by Libya

Six sentenced to die in a controversial HIV case arrive in Bulgaria.

July 25, 2007|Julia Damianova and Tracy Wilkinson | Special to The Times

SOFIA, BULGARIA — For almost 8 1/2 years, they languished in a Libyan prison, condemned to death by military firing squad, convicted of a crime that was the antithesis of their careers in medicine.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor had deliberately infected more than 400 Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS, a Libyan court had ruled. Why? First, it was supposedly part of a twisted plot to destabilize the government. Later, the Libyans claimed, the crime was a medical experiment gone horribly wrong.

The six health workers, their faces peering, year after year, through metal bars as an appalled but apparently impotent West looked on, proclaimed their innocence, and independent reports by experts backed them up. Their confessions were extracted through torture, they said; their supporters viewed them as pawns in an authoritarian regime's quest to end its financially crippling isolation.

And then, on Tuesday, their ordeal came to a dramatic end.

It was a denouement brought about after months of negotiations leading to the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars for the infected children in Libya, which critics likened to ransom; the promise of new privileges for Libya's government; and entreaties from the likes of the emir of Qatar and France's new first lady.

Whisked out of their prison before dawn, the six were bundled onto a French presidential jet and flown to the Bulgarian capital. Minutes later, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov pardoned the nurses, Snezhana Dimitrova, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valia Cherveniashka and Kristiana Valcheva, and the doctor, Ashraf Alhajouj, an Egyptian-born Palestinian who had been granted Bulgarian citizenship.

"I feel like I've been in a coma for eight years, and only now am I waking," Dimitrova said, according to her son Ivaylo, who was among the jubilant, tearful relatives and friends and crowds of well-wishers who greeted the health workers at Sofia's airport.

"I still can't believe that I am standing on Bulgarian soil," Valcheva told reporters. "I want my life to return to what it was before."

The nurses, ages 41 to 54, had learned they were being freed only hours earlier. They stepped steadily but stiffly down the airplane's staircase and began to shake hands with waiting officials and diplomats. But then relatives burst through and ran to the mothers and sisters they had not touched in years, nearly knocking them over in a blissful crush.

In Libya, while Col. Moammar Kadafi clearly parlayed the case into better trade, economic and political ties for his longtime pariah state with Europe, he did so at the expense of anger among the families of the 438 infected children, who did not want the health workers freed. Some of the children, who experts say were victims of unsanitary hospital conditions and practices, are now in their teens; more than 50 of those infected have died.

European officials, too, came under criticism for the perception that they had in essence paid ransom for the health workers.


Delayed justice

"Science and diplomacy have righted a juridical abnormality," said Dr. Vittorio Colizzi, an Italian virologist and one of the world's foremost HIV/AIDS experts, who championed the Bulgarians' cause. "But is it justice when it takes so many years to tell us what we already knew? This is very late."

Several of the nurses said they were abused and tortured while incarcerated. They suffered broken bones and ill health. Their faces have become lined, their hair has grayed. One attempted suicide.

"The scars can still be seen on their bodies," said Bulgarian Dr. Zdravko Georgiev, who is married to Valcheva and was imprisoned with the six but released earlier. However, he was not allowed to leave Libya until now.

"The electrical shocks were horrific," he said, recalling his lengthy time in jail, during which he alternated between solitary confinement and overcrowded cells. "I could hear the girls screaming."

Georgiev was flown home Tuesday with the rest of the group.

"I am trying to forget the horrors that I went through," Dimitrova said, dark circles under her eyes. "I don't want to tell anyone about it and tried to spare my children the stories."

Asked what sustained her, Dimitrova, who turns 55 next month, said: "The best thing was I did not understand a word they said about me in court."


Soviet-era ties

For decades during the Cold War, the communist Balkan state of Bulgaria sent medical workers, engineers and other technicians abroad to ideologically like-minded nations such as Sandinista-led Nicaragua and Soviet ally Libya.

The tradition continued as Bulgaria shifted to democracy but remained poor. Professionals working abroad were able to send money for families back home. Dimitrova, Valcheva and the other nurses arrived in Libya in 1998 and most began work in the Al Fateh Children's Hospital in the northeastern coastal city of Benghazi, where dozens of youngsters had been infected with HIV.

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