Fury over delay in Libyan Court ruling on children infected with AIDS

A delay by Libya's Supreme Court in reaching a decision on the appeal of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, condemned to death for infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the AIDS virus, has infuriated the children's parents who hurled stones and bottles at police outside the court.

More than 100 relatives of the infected children clashed with riot police outside the court after the postponement was announced, three people were arrested, and one police officer was injured.

The relatives held banners and signs calling for the death sentences to be carried out and many parents held photos of their infected children.

No reason has been given for the postponement until Jan. 31 next year, but many analysts view it as an opportunity for Libyan leader Gadhafi to find a way to save face in the high-profile case.

The case has sparked international criticism and become a barrier to improved relations with Europe and the United States.

The six medical workers were convicted in May 2004 of intentionally infecting the children with the HIV virus as part of an experiment to find a cure for AIDS.

They were sentenced to death by firing squad.

The accused were not present at Tuesday's hearing but were represented by their lawyers.

Bulgarian and other European officials have accused Libyan authorities of trying to pin blame on the medical workers for poor hygiene practices they say caused the infections at al-Fath Children's Hospital in Benghazi.

Had the court rejected the appeal, there would have been no further legal recourse and the only way to avoid the death sentence would have been a pardon by Gadhafi.

The European Union regards the postponement as a good sign and has appealed to the court to take a new look at the evidence.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, says the postponement of the Supreme Court's judgment is a useful step, and the EU is counting on the Libyan judicial system to ensure that justice is done.

Bulgaria however has expressed deep concern, and President Georgi Parvanov says the decision was prolonging the drama of the five innocent nurses who were first arrested in February 1999.

Libyan officials had apparently approached Bulgaria with a suggestion that the nurses could be spared the death penalty if the government paid compensation to the families of the HIV victims, but the offer was rejected because it would have implied the nurses were guilty.

Libyan experts say the situation is deadlocked as Bulgaria does not want the nurses to be presumed guilty, yet Libya cannot say its courts have been wrong.

The European Union and Libya are apparently in talks to arrange for some sort of humanitarian assistance to the victims which could allow Libya to free the defendants.

As at least 50 of the 426 children infected with the AIDS virus have died, the government is under considerable pressure.

Credible witnesses have testified that the virus was present in the hospital before the foreign medical workers began their contracts there.

The trial has been criticised by the European Union and the United States for not meeting international standards of due process.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused authorities of using torture to coerce confessions from the medical workers.

New York-based Human Rights Watch reports that the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Juma, was tortured by electric shock, beatings and sleep deprivation, and Amnesty International has reported that two of the nurses had been raped.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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