A court convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor Tuesday of deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV and sentenced them to death, despite scientific evidence the youngsters had the virus before the medical workers came to Libya.
The United States and Europe reacted with outrage to the verdict, which prolongs a case that has hurt Libya’s ties to the West. The six co-defendants have already served seven years in jail.
The sentence brought cheers in Libya, where there is widespread public anger over the infections. The Libyan press has long depicted the medical workers as guilty.
After the sentence was pronounced, dozens of relatives outside the Tripoli court chanted “Execution! Execution!” Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, shouted, “God is great! Long live the Libyan judiciary!”
But the ruling stunned the defendants. They were convicted and sentenced to death a year ago, but the Libyan Supreme Court ordered a retrial after an international outcry that the first trial was unfair. The case now returns to the Supreme Court for an automatic appeal.
“This sentence was another blow, another shock for us,” Zdravko Georgiev, the husband of one of the nurses, Kristiana Valcheva, told the Associated Press in Bulgaria.
International reaction has gone against the decision, of course, but it seems tempered and lacking the outrage this verdict demands:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin in Washington, said the United States was “very disappointed with the outcome” and urged the medical workers be freed and “allowed to go home at the earliest possible date.”
In Bulgaria, President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev called the ruling “absurd” and urged Libyan authorities “to intervene immediately” to reconsider it and free the medics.
The case was sent immediately to the Libyan Supreme Court for appeal, but it was not known when the court would rule. If it upholds the ruling, the case goes to the Judicial Board, which can uphold or annul it, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said.
An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, criticized the retrial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence.
“We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one,” Cantier said.
Declan Butler’s written a piece for Nature here; despite the sentence, this still isn’t over, though it looks grim…