The Libyan supreme court on Sunday overturned death sentences for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who have been in jail since 1999 on allegations they purposely infected children with the AIDS virus.
The case has poisoned Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s efforts to improve ties with the West and he is believed looking for a face-saving way out of the standoff. The supreme court ordered the six defendants retried, saying there were “irregularities” in the case’s handling.
The U.S. government and European Union had condemned the convictions and accused Libya of trumping up the charges to divert attention from poor hygiene at its hospitals that the critics blame for the infections.
The supreme court’s ruling came three days after U.S., European and Libyan negotiators reached a deal to set up a fund to help families of the 426 children infected in the 1990s with HIV. About 50 of the children are said to have died.
Emotions are also inflamed in Libya. Relatives of the infected children angrily protested Sunday’s ruling at Green Square in central Tripoli. Some set fire to tires and clashed with police. Four demonstrators were arrested.
Libya accused the six health workers of deliberately infecting the children at a Benghazi hospital as part of an experiment. The health workers said they were tortured to extract confessions.
In the ruling Sunday, the supreme court’s chief judge, Ali al-Alous, suggested he believed the defense. He said prosecutors had agreed with defense lawyers that there were “irregularities” in the arrest and the interrogation of the medical workers.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Justin Higgins said “our understanding is that this decision is a positive development since it removes the risk of the death sentence being carried out.”
“The international community is working with Libya to find an overall solution,” Higgins said. “As we have made clear before, we believe a way should be found to allow the medics to return to their homes. We’ll continue to support these efforts.”
Bulgaria welcomed the verdict as a “positive sign” and said it hoped for a quick retrial.
“The Libyan court’s decision is an encouraging step toward a final recognition of the innocence of our compatriots,” said Bulgaria’s parliament speaker, Georgi Pirinski.
The defendants did not attend Sunday’s session. A date for the retrial was not immediately set.
The case has plagued Gadhafi’s campaign to rebuild good relations with the West.
In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to compensate families of the 270 victims. It also voluntarily scrapped its nuclear program, handing its material over to the United States and United Nations.
In response, the U.S. government lifted 23-year-old travel restrictions imposed on Libya, invited American companies to return to the oil-rich nation and encouraged Tripoli to open a diplomatic office in Washington.
But Washington has made clear the nurses’ case is a key sticking point that must be resolved before the United States reopens its embassy in Tripoli, a top goal for Gadhafi.
“There should be no confusion in the Libyan government’s mind that those nurses ought to be not only spared ... but out of prison,” President Bush said in October.
The European Union also said its relations with Libya hinged on the fate of the Bulgarians.
The trial has stoked anger within Libya, with the families of the infected children demonstrating at every court session and reacting with outrage at the repeated delays in carrying out the original sentence of execution by firing squad.
Relatives, some of them carrying their children, scuffled with riot police surrounding the court during Sunday’s session and tried to force their way inside. “Merry Christmas to you, nurses, but what did we do to you that you infect us?” read one banner.
Awad al-Mesmari, a lawyer for families of the infected children, said he was “saddened” by the ruling.
“What did the children do so that they suffer now? We have buried 50 of them, may God bless them,” he said.
Another lawyer for families vowed the six would still be found guilty.
“The verdict will delay achieving justice for years because the retrial takes a long time. We will be ready and we have enough evidence to incriminate them,” Ramadan al-Faytouri said.
In months of negotiations over the nurses, Bulgaria rejected Libyan proposals that it pay compensation to families of the infected children, saying that would imply the medical workers’ guilt and amount to blackmail.
On Thursday, an agreement was announced under which Bulgaria, the United States, Britain and the EU agreed to set up a non-governmental group to collect and distribute financial and material help to the children’s families. The amount of aid has yet to be announced.