By Lamine Ghanmi
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libya’s Supreme Court postponed a
ruling on Tuesday in the final appeal of five Bulgarian nurses
and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death for deliberately
infecting children with the HIV virus.
The six have been in prison since 1999 and are due to face
a firing squad for intentionally causing an HIV epidemic in a
hospital in the port of Benghazi. About 50 of the 426 infected
children have died.
Bulgaria, the European Union and the United States have all
rejected the verdicts as unfounded, clouding Libyan leader
Muammar Gaddafi’s efforts to end his diplomatic isolation. But
public opinion in Libya strongly backs the convictions.
After hearing that the ruling had been put back to January
31, victims’ relatives waiting outside the court pelted police
with stones and prevented European diplomats from leaving the
court, chanting: “Death penalty for the killers of the
Mohamed al-Maghribi, lawyer for the infected victims, said
the court’s decision was in response to a request from the
government — involved in the case as a third party — for more
time to provide new evidence.
The state is contesting the earlier verdict, which says it
is responsible for compensating the victims.
Western powers point to the nurses’ allegations that their
confessions were extracted under torture, and to the testimony
of AIDS experts who told the court the outbreak started before
the nurses arrived and was probably caused by poor hygiene.
The United States urged Libya not to put at risk a further
improvement in ties, which have improved greatly since Libya
renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli reiterated the U.S.
view that the conviction was flawed and the defendants should
be freed, adding:
“Our decisions on moving forward will be based on progress
… in addressing a range of issues, including human rights.”
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said he hoped the delay
would produce a fair solution, even if the court had failed to
acknowledge the accused were innocent and acquit them.
But political analysts say Libya could face unrest if the
defendants are freed.
“I swear before God that I will be a soldier for bin Laden
and kidnap any Bulgarian who works here to avenge the infection
of my boy,” Ahmed Attarhouni, the father of one victim, yelled
out to media covering the trial.
“This case is rather like a poisoned chalice,” said George
Joffe, who lectures on North Africa and the Middle East at
Cambridge University’s Center for International Studies.
“No one wants to sip from it. Whatever reason they’ve
given, the real reason is that they are scared of making a
Libya has suggested the death sentences could be commuted
if Bulgaria compensates the families.
“The final result will depend on the progress of the talks
on humanitarian aid … So in a way they’ve bought themselves
some negotiating time,” Joffe said.
The American group Human Rights Watch said the defendants’
claims of torture — including beatings, electric shocks and
sexual assault — were credible.
In June, a Libyan court cleared nine policemen and a
physician of torturing the nurses to get confessions.
(Additional reporting by Michael Winfrey in Sofia)