Libya's Supreme Court upholds death penalty against medics
Daily Star (Lebanon)
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Libya's Supreme Court upheld Wednesday the death penalty against six foreign medics convicted of infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus, but a reprieve may still be possible in the case that has dragged on for eight years. Foreign Minister Mohammad Abdel-Rahman Shalgam said the government-controlled High Judicial Council, which has the power to commute the sentence or even pardon the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor, will consider the case on Monday.
EU and Bulgarian leaders expressed regret at the court's ruling, the latest twist in a highly politicized trial, but said they remained confident. There have been lengthy efforts to secure a deal with the children's families.
"In the name of the people, the court has decided not to accept the defendants' appeal and confirms the death penalty against them," chief judge Fathi Dahan said.
Nurses Snezhana Dimitrova, Nasya Nenova, Valya Cherveniashka, Valentina Siropulo and Kristiana Valcheva and Palestinian doctor Ashraf Juma Hajuj - who now has Bulgarian nationality - have been behind bars since February 1999 but have always protested their innocence. The six were not in court for Wednesday's verdict.
They were convicted of infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood at a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi and sentenced to death in May 2004. Fifty-six of the children have since died.
But foreign health experts have cited poor hygiene as the probable cause of the epidemic in Benghazi, Libya's second city.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the medics should be "returned immediately," but noted that Wednesday's court ruling was not the last word in the process.
Portuguese Premier Jose Socrates, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, expressed sorrow over the verdict and appealed for clemency.
"We will continue our efforts together with our European and other international partners toward reaching a final agreement and for a decision of the Supreme Judicial Council which will be positive for our medical workers," Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov said.
Hopes were raised for a deal to win their release on Tuesday evening when Libya's Gadhafi Foundation charity said it had reached an accord with the children's families that "puts an end to the crisis."
A representative of the victims' families had said the compromise deal would also see the death penalty commuted to jail terms, which could be served in the medics' country of origin, as Libya and Bulgaria have an extradition treaty.
Libyan officials say the High Judicial Council would only agree to the release of the nurses if a settlement were reached in private talks between the families and the EU on funding for the children's medical care.
Update: Good news! See July 17, 2007 post (above) for story of commutation of death sentences.