On December 19, 2006, a Libyan court convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor of deliberately infecting 400 children at a hospital with HIV. The six were condemned to death, despite scientific evidence that the children contracted the virus before the medical workers arrived in Libya in 1998. The co-defendants were accused of infecting the children during a botched attempt at finding a cure. 50 of the children have died, and the rest have been treated in Europe.
The verdict has sparked outrage in Europe and the United States, and celebration throughout Libya, where the six co-defendants have been portrayed as guilty in the media – despite scientific evidence that the virus was circulating in the hospital as early as 1995, according to research journal Nature. Family members of the children cheered outside the courtroom when the verdict was announced.
The co-defendants had already spent seven years in prison, and were hoping for exoneration after the Libyan Supreme Court called for a retrial after the six were originally convicted in condemned to death last year in a trial that was considered largely unfair by the international community.
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."
Not only has the trial itself become a human rights issue, but so has the treatment of the prisoners. All six claim they were tortured, and two nurses – all the nurses are women – claim they were raped (Libyan prison officials were acquitted of the charge). The Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights have affirmed these accusations based on interviews and field evaluations. It is believed that mistreatment took place before 2004, because of the high profile nature of the case, and because the defendants have been visited by international observers since that time.
The trial has strained Libya’s relations with the West, and there will be more pressure with Bulgaria joining the European Union as of January 1, 2007. Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi has attempted to reach a deal whereby the victims would be compensated by Bulgaria, though that has been rejected as it would be an admission of guilt on the part of the nurses.
The case puts Ghadafi in a difficult position, as there is intense popular pressure in his own country for a guilty verdict. There were clashes in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, when the Supreme Court initially ordered a retrial. The city is a hotbed for fundamentalist anti-Ghadafi Islamic groups, and an innocent verdict could have lead to further opposition to the government.
The case was sent immediately to the Libyan Supreme Court for appeal, but it is unknown when the court will rule. If it upholds the ruling, the case goes to the Judicial Board, which can uphold or annul it.