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Bulgaria: Sofia Tries To Save Medics From Death Sentence In Libya

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov has completed a visit to Libya aimed at saving the lives of five Bulgarian medics sentenced to death by a Libyan court in 2004. The five, together with a Palestinian doctor, are accused of infecting hundreds of children with HIV. The accused, who have spent six years in prison, insist they are innocent and say they were tortured into making confessions. The case has severely strained relations between Bulgaria and Libya. Libya's Supreme Court is to due to rule on an appeal by the six on 31 May.

Prague, 30 May 2005 (RFE/RL) – Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalgam held out the possibility of compromise on the defendants over the weekend but made clear too that Libya still sought compensation for the hundreds of children it says the medical personnel infected with HIV.

In December, Bulgaria rejected a Libyan proposal to free the nurses in return for a cash payment equivalent to that paid by Libya to the victims of the airline attack over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Sofia refuses to pay compensation because it maintains the nurses are innocent, a view supported by the European Union, which has denounced the verdicts against them. The six were found guilty in 2004 by a Libyan court of injecting 380 children with blood transfusions infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Forty-seven of the children have since died. The court sentenced the six to death by firing squad.

The accused, who have been in prison in Libya since 1999, are supported by the AIDS experts who isolated the HIV virus in the hospital where the nurses worked. They state that the epidemic was probably caused by poor hygiene and that the infection had already begun before the medical workers started working in the hospital.

But while Sofia rejects cash payments -- a sort of blood money -- President Parvanov spent the weekend in Libya seeking a face-saving formula that would satisfy both sides. Visiting the Benghazi hospital where the nurses had worked, Parvanov told families of the infected children that he had come to Libya in solidarity with the children.

"I want Bulgaria and all of Europe to help in the treatment of your children," Parvanov said.

Bulgaria, he said, was working with the European Union to provide assistance for the children so that a specialized hospital could be built in Benghazi.

Last week, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner flew to Libya to urge Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to free the medical workers. She too offered sympathy for the children and the promise of more aid to treat the HIV and AIDS patients at the Benghazi hospital.

But also she went to Libya with a warning, that if it wants to deepen its ties with the European Union, Libya must first resolve the issue of the medical workers. Libya wants to join the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, an EU program to promote closer economic ties in the region.

President Parvanov spent four hours with Libyan leader Gaddafi yesterday but gave little away about the substance of their talks.

"I don’t want to compare these two issues [the case of Bulgarian medics and the tragedy of the sick children]," Parvanov said. "After my talks with Colonel Gaddafi, I am hopeful that we will really find the right solutions."

Libya's Supreme Court is due to rule on an appeal by the six medical workers tomorrow, but a face-saving formula might be just around the corner.

A separate trial is under way in the Libyan capital Tripoli of nine policemen and a doctor accused of torturing the six into confessing. The verdict, which is due on 7 June, could provide the Supreme Court with the escape clause it needs to order a retrial.