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Foreign health workers look set to escape Libyan death sentence

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39280.560995.D (Published 19 July 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:115
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    Death sentences pronounced by a Libyan court on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian intern accused of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV looked to be on the point of being overturned as the BMJ went to press.

    Relatives of the infected children agreed to drop calls for capital punishment in return for compensation of $1m (£0.5m, €0.7m) for each family, the Bulgarian television channel BTV said.

    A hearing before Libya's Supreme Judicial Council concerning the fate of the foreign workers had been set for 16 July, but it has been postponed twice. The Libyan government gave no reason for the delay, but the Bulgarian news programme attibuted the delay to the need to collect more signatures from the children's families, waiving their demand for the death penalty.

    The families' spokesman, Idriss Lagha, told Agence France Presse that relatives were to sign the agreement only at the moment they cashed their cheques. Banks were kept open in Benghazi overnight in an effort to hasten the process, he said. About 270 of the families (60%) had signed waivers by Tuesday morning.

    The deal emerged after a visit to Libya last week by Cécilia Sarkozy, wife of the French president. She met with Libya's president, Muammar Gaddafi, and with infected children. An aide to President Sarkozy, Claude Gueant, said that the meeting between Mrs Sarkozy and Colonel Gaddafi had been a key breakthrough. The Libyan leader seemed to have been swayed by Mrs Sarkozy's argument that the case was holding up the normalisation of relations between Libya and Europe, said Mr Gueant.

    It remains a mystery who is paying the compensation to the families. The Bulgarian foreign minister, Ivailo Kalfin, speaking after the deal was reached last weekend, reiterated the longstanding Bulgarian position that his government would not pay compensation, as to do so would imply that the six health workers were guilty.

    A spokeswoman for the European Commission denied any role of the EC in the latest negotiations, while spokesmen for the Bulgarian and Libyan governments refused to comment on the source of the funds.

    The six health workers have been in prison since 1999, when 426 children at Benghazi's El-Fath Children's Hospital were infected with HIV. About 50 of the children have since died. The six foreigners were convicted of deliberately spreading infection and were sentenced to death by firing squad in May 2004 (BMJ 2004;328:1153, doi: 10.1136/bmj.328.7449.1153-a).

    The defence counsel submitted a scientific report from HIV experts Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi, which blamed poor hygiene standards and suggested that the first infections predated the foreigners' arrival at the hospital. A prosecution report by Libyan scientists suggested deliberate infection.

    The sentence was appealed and overturned but then confirmed at a retrial in December 2006 that excluded foreign scientific evidence.

    The Supreme Judicial Council, a political body headed by the justice minister, has the power to confirm, reduce, or overturn the sentence.

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