The six -- five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor -- have been in jail in Libya since 1999. Their sentences were reduced after Libyan authorities announced that compensation would be paid to the families of more than 400 children who contracted the HIV virus.
The families then signed a declaration renouncing the death sentences.
Sofia welcomed the Libyan Supreme Court's decision on July 17 to reduce the medics’ sentences to life in prison.
But Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin said the affair is far from over.
“This decision of the Supreme Judicial Council of Libya is a huge, positive step, but we will consider the case closed when the nurses come to Bulgaria," Kalfin said. "This decision revokes the worst -- the death sentences -- and it opens opportunities for activating the agreement on legal assistance.”
A Possible Exchange
Bulgaria is expected to formally request that the medics be extradited into its custody under a prisoner-exchange agreement.
There are some signs that Tripoli is ready for such bargaining.
Libya’s foreign minister said on July 17 that Tripoli is willing to consider transferring the prisoners to Sofia as long as the transfer takes place in the “legal framework and political context” of relations between the two countries.
AP quotes Abdel-Rahman Shalqam as saying that “there is legal cooperation between Libya and Bulgaria and we don’t mind that the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor benefit from it.”
Pressure From The West
Libya has been under international pressure to free the six medics. On July 17, France's ambassador to Bulgaria, Etienne de Poncins, repeated that call. "We are making it clear to the Libyan authorities that there will be no normalization in relations between France and Libya and between Libya and the EU until the Bulgarian nurses and the doctor are back in Bulgaria," de Poncins said.
Washington has also urged Libya to send the six to Bulgaria.
"Our view remains unchanged. You know what it is," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on July 17. "We believe that these nurses and medics should be allowed to return to their own home country immediately."
The payment of compensation to the families of the children infected with the HIV virus appears to have opened more possibilities for the medics to be repatriated. But it has also angered some members of the medics’ own families, who maintain that the nurses and doctors are innocent.
"Most people could hardly understand why, if [the nurses] are innocent, compensations are being paid to [the families of] the kids," said Ivailo Nikolchovsky, the son of one of the Bulgarian nurses. "A reasonable person would ask this question."
Idriss Lagha, representing the children's families, said the families had withdrawn their demand for the execution of the medics after receiving the compensation payments. He said that the families "have received their cash transfer, $1 million for each infection."
The medics say they were tortured into confessing they had infected the children with the virus that causes AIDS, and deny any guilt in the case.
(with material from agency reports)