Bulgaria presses for repatriation of nurses

Four of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV stand behind bars in a court in Tripoli
Four of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV stand behind bars in a court in Tripoli in this June 13, 2006, file photo. Libya's highest judicial body said Tuesday it had commuted the death sentences against the six foreign medics to life imprisonment.Louafi Larbi / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bulgaria pressed Wednesday for the repatriation of five of its nurses and a Palestinian doctor jailed in Libya after their death sentences on charges of infecting children with HIV were commuted to life in prison.

“For us, the case will be closed only after the medics return to Bulgarian soil, and we are working for it to happen as soon as possible,” Prime Minister Serge Stanishev told reporters.

Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry announced it will send the official transfer request to Tripoli on Thursday.

Libya accused the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. The medics, jailed since 1999, deny infecting the children and say their confessions were extracted under torture. Their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment late Tuesday.

Experts and outside scientific reports said the children were contaminated by unhygienic conditions at a hospital in the northeastern city of Benghazi. Fifty of the infected children died.

Prosecutor General Boris Velchev said the request to Tripoli was based on a 1984 agreement between the two countries that would allow the medical workers to serve their sentences in Bulgaria. Last month, Bulgaria granted citizenship to the Palestinian doctor.

“It is possible that Libya will reject a transfer, but this agreement allows us to make a second request,” Velchev said. He did not give a timeframe of when the medics might return home.

Presidential pardon?
The medics’ main Libyan defense lawyer, Osman al-Bizant, told broadcaster Al-Jazeera that their deportation depended on whether their punishment would be enforced in Bulgaria.

Another defense lawyer, Harry Haralampiev, said under Bulgarian law, it was possible for the six to receive a presidential pardon. But President Georgi Parvanov refused to say if the issue was being considered.

Tuesday’s ruling came after the children’s families each received $1 million, according to a victims’ advocate, and agreed to drop their demand for executions.

Libya remains under intense international pressure to free the six, and Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said Tripoli would consider their deportation to Bulgaria.

“In return (for a transfer), improving the conditions of the infected children and their families should be taken into account,” Shalqam told The Associated Press.

Portugal, which holds the presidency of the European Union, said it hoped the medics would return to EU member Bulgaria “without further delay.”

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he may soon visit Libya if such a trip could help the jailed medics’ cause. He spoke by telephone Tuesday with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who invited him to visit, Elysee Palace spokesman David Martinon said.

In a surprise visit last week, French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy met with Gadhafi, the nurses and young HIV-positive Libyans.

Defamation case
In a separate court case in Tripoli, the six medics were found not guilty Wednesday of defaming a police officer whom they had accused of torture when they gave testimony in their trial. Libya’s South Tripoli Court of First Instance did not explain the ruling. The nurses and the Palestinian doctor did not appear in court.

In May, the same court dropped similar charges that had been filed by two Libyans, police officer Jumaa al-Mishri and a doctor, Abdul-Majid al-Shoul, who demanded $4 million in compensation.

Wednesday’s case had been filed by police officer Saleem Ahmed Saleem, who claimed a similar amount in compensation. The medics had denied that they defamed anyone.

During their retrial last year in the HIV case, they said their confessions had been extracted under torture, and named al-Mishri, al-Shoul and Saleem as the culprits.

Bulgaria also seeks the return of Zdravko Georgiev, a husband of one of the jailed nurses and a co-defendant. He was released two years ago after serving his sentence, but was not allowed to leave Libya.

Relatives and friends planned a rally Wednesday in Sofia to show their support for the six.