Retrial in Libya of Medics Back on Track

Health |

The retrial in Libya of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who have been accused of deliberately contaminating hundreds of Libyan children with AIDS, reopened this week.

Judge Mahmud al-Huweissa has called for the process to be sped up and has adjourned the trial to June 20 after a brief session and ruled that any petitions will in future need to be filed in writing.

The judge says weekly hearings will now take place because the case has “dragged on too long” but has rejected an application for the accused to be released on bail on the grounds that the defendants might be harmed by the victims’ relatives.

Bulgaria has welcomed the decision and says they hope that the testimony of all the witnesses called by the defence and the arguments it will present will be reviewed with the maximum objectivity and the case decided with the shortest possible delay.

The team of Bulgarian defence lawyers for the five nurses called for a new expert opinion on what caused the hospital AIDS outbreak that infected the children, as the two existing assessments are incompatible.

Libyan experts said the outbreak was knowingly sparked by the nurses who have been in jail since 1999.

The nurses and the doctor were condemned to death in May 2004 at an initial trial in the eastern city of Benghazi after being convicted of infecting 426 Libyan children with AIDS while working at the local hospital.

An international outcry followed as the trial was widely perceived as unfair and human rights groups accused the Libyan authorities of prosecuting the foreigners in a cover-up.

At their first trial, scientist and co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, Luc Montagnier, and Italian Professor Vitorio Colizzi said the disease was rife before the nurses’ arrival in Libya and was due to poor hygiene in the Benghazi hospital.

Defence lawyers also say that the incriminating testimony of Libyan medical experts was wrong and should be re-evaluated and they have urged the court to review the “pressure” brought to bear on the accused after their arrest in 1999.

They have asked the court to accept written testimony from a Bulgarian engineer Smilian Tachev, who was arrested together with the nurses but freed six months later who has said the nurses were tortured in detention.

Amnesty International has also said the women reported being tortured with electric shocks and beaten until they confessed.

Palestinian doctor Ashraf Hajjuj has complained about the conditions in which he is being held, and claims he is being discriminated against.

One of the defence lawyers, Thahiba Mohammed Moussa has stood down from defending the doctor and has reportedly joined the team of lawyers representing the victims’ relatives.

The nurses are refusing to talk to Bulgarian journalists in the Judeida prison on the grounds that after eight years they have nothing to say.

The six proclaim their innocence and appealed to the Libyan Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial last December 25.

In December 2005 an international fund to fight AIDS in Libya was set up by Bulgaria in partnership with the European Union and the United States but meanwhile another child has died bringing the death toll to 52 with 50 more children giving cause for concern.

Bulgaria said the fund will ensure permanent medical care for AIDS patients, raise the standard of the Benghazi hospital to international levels and provide financial help to families with sick or dead children.

Bulgaria has rejected the idea of paying compensation to the families, or writing off some of Libya’s debt, saying such a move would be seen as an admission of the nurses’ guilt.

It is reported that the Libyan families have demanded $10-million in compensation for each of the 426 children contaminated with AIDS.

The families’ demand was formally rejected by Bulgaria, which believes in the nurses’ innocence.

The trial has become the equivalent of a diplomatic “High Noon”, with the U.S. and European Union suggesting that future relations with Libyan leader Gadhafi could depend on the verdict.