Libya frees foreign HIV medics

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Freedom for the Bulgarian Nurses" symbol.
Image: www.nestesami.bg.

Libya has freed six foreign medical personnel who were convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV and sentenced to death. In jail since 1999, the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, today. The president of Bulgaria, Georgi Parvanov, promptly pardoned them.

All six have maintained their innocence throughout. They have also claimed that they suffered torture to extract confessions. International HIV experts testified at the trials that the infections began before the six arrived at the Benghazi hospital. They said the infections were more likely the result of poor hygiene.

Last week, Libya lifted the death sentences following a US$460 million financial settlement, which works out to US$1 million to each HIV victim's family. However, Libya insisted on further concessions on relations with the European Union and aid.

A deal between the E.U. and Libya, mediated by Qatar, ended the diplomatic standoff. The foreign minister of Libya, Abdel Rahman Shalgham, said the E.U. promised to provide "life-long treatment" to the infected children, as well as aid to "improve the Benghazi hospital" where the children were infected. Further, he claimed that deal will allow for "full cooperation and partnership between Libya and the European Union."

"We hope to go on further [in] normalising our relations with Libya. Our relations with Libya were to a large extent blocked by the non-settlement of this medics issue," said José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission.

The president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that neither the E.U. nor France paid money to Libya. He also said he would visit Libya on Wednesday to help Tripoli's reintegration. "I can quite simply confirm to you that neither Europe nor France have made the slightest financial contribution to Libya," said Sarkozy to reporters in Paris. "I have had the opportunity to thank the Qatari authorities very warmly for their mediation and their humanitarian intervention."

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commissioner for External Relations, said: "I share the joy of their families and friends and of the government and people of Bulgaria. For over eight years, we have never forgotten the suffering of the medical staff who have shown such dignity and fortitude during their long ordeal."

"Now I still can't believe that I am standing on Bulgarian soil. We were told the news at four o'clock in the morning and we left the jail at quarter to six to board the plane. Now I will try to get my previous life back," said Kristiyana Vulcheva, 48, upon her release at the airport.

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