Bulgarian leaders, EU condemn HIV verdict in Libya

"Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak."

doctor accused hiv 88 (photo credit: )
doctor accused hiv 88
(photo credit: )
Bulgarian and EU leaders condemned the convictions in Libya on Tuesday of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death for allegedly infecting 400 children with the HIV virus. "We call upon the Libyan authorities to intervene immediately and in the name of elementary justice to reconsider and reject these absurd verdicts and to set the Bulgarian medics and the Palestinian doctor free," President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said in a joint statement issued hours after the hearing in Tripoli. The six defendants, detained for nearly seven years in connection with the deaths, had been convicted in an earlier trial - but Libyan judges granted them a retrial last year following international protests over the fairness of the proceedings. Bulgaria has long maintained the charges are a coverup, and that the children became infected because of unhygienic conditions in the hospital. "Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak," Bulgaria's parliamentary speaker Georgi Pirinski said. The European Union, which has questioned how the six were prosecuted and treated while in custody, expressed its shock, and an EU spokesman said member nations were debating a course of action on behalf of Bulgaria, which joins the bloc in January. "The EU simply cannot accept this verdict," spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said in Brussels. The EU has long sought to establish closer relations with Libya, but the case has hampered those efforts. In 2005, the bloc set aside €2 million (US$2.6 million) to help AIDS victims in Libya in an initiative EU officials hoped would encourage Libyan authorities to release the Bulgarians. Austria's foreign minister urged a "quick, fair and humane solution." "The EU engages itself unwaveringly and consistently for the global abolition of the death penalty. This inhumane punishment diametrically contradicts our basic values and human dignity," Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said in Vienna. "We will therefore exhaust all possibilities to achieve a reversal of the verdicts." In Paris, Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said "France deplores this verdict." He said France was "fundamentally opposed" to the death penalty and urged Libyan authorities to show clemency. Douste-Blazy also expressed sympathy for the infected children and their families. About 150 of the children received treatment in France, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei. France and Libya both financed the treatment, he said. In Prague, the Czech Foreign Ministry said it considers the defendants' seven-year detention "a deplorable act and a serious violation of human rights." The rights group Amnesty International condemned the decision to sentence the six to death. "We deplore these sentences and urge the Libyan authorities to declare immediately that they will never be carried out, said Malcolm Smart, Middle East and North Africa program director. "The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and in this case it has been imposed after a grossly unfair trial." He said the defendants have maintained that their confessions were extracted under torture and then used against them. Defense lawyers were not allowed to call on international experts, and experts have questioned the evidence produced by Libyan medical experts, Smart said. Amnesty International urged the EU to pressure Libya to reconsider the death sentence. "The EU has a direct responsibility and must stand firm in this case," said Dick Oosting, director of Amnesty's EU office, said in Brussels. "A justice system that imposes the death penalty after questionable trials also reinforces concerns about the EU's eagerness to cooperate with Libya in the fight against irregular migration," he said.