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Qaddafi’s Gone, But What About The Bulgarian Nurses?

Five Bulgarian medics and a Palestinian doctor were detained for years and initially sentenced to death for allegedly infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV.
Five Bulgarian medics and a Palestinian doctor were detained for years and initially sentenced to death for allegedly infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV.
As reports emerge about sharp splits within Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), the country’s new rulers are additionally facing possible complications in the arena of international diplomacy.

Bulgaria, for one, has already declared its intention to seek the recovery of “forgiven” debt, which the current Bulgarian government says was actually a ransom paid to the Qaddafi regime for the release of five Bulgarian nurses that Sofia maintains were arrested on trumped up charges, subjected to a mockery of a trial in Libya and years of detention in dismal conditions, as well as gross violations of their civil and human rights.

The legal proceedings between 1999-2007 against five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused by the Libyan authorities of intentionally infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV represent one of the most painful chapters in Bulgaria’s modern history.

Medical experts say that the children were most likely infected because of poor sanitary conditions and multiple uses of the same syringes. Nonetheless, as the Qaddafi regime was seeking scapegoats to quell public discontent, it decided to target the foreign nurses.

Nurses' Trial Still Rankles In Bulgaria

Even today, four years after the nurses’ release and their immediate pardon by the Bulgarian president, there is still a bitter feeling in Bulgarian society that the country was cynically singled out by Qaddafi and used as a bargaining tool with the West, because it was perceived by him as a weaker state without much international support.

This was probably the only Bulgarian foreign policy issue on which the country's usually very antagonistic political parties were completely unanimous.

All successive Bulgarian governments have viewed the situation with the nurses as a racket and have considered the forced forfeiture of debt to be a ransom payment.

Bulgaria’s current prime minister, Boyko Borisov, announced early in September that Sofia will seek a repayment of nearly $57 million in Libyan debt, which it was forced to forfeit in 2007 as a condition for the release of the nurses.

The situation seems to be getting even more complicated, because the Chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil happens to be the same senior Qaddafi official who signed the death sentences for the nurses in 2007 when he was Qaddafi’s justice minister.

In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Abdel-Jalil claimed that the nurses' trial was wholly fabricated by Qaddafi.

Nonetheless, Jalil maintains that, like any other member of Qaddafi's inner circle, he was forced to publicly support the process even though he privately did not agree with it.

The legacy of the nurses' trial can be clearly seen in the Bulgarian government's late and wary recognition of the NTC on June 28.

Initially, in March, Sofia resolutely refused to recognize it precisely because of its suspicion that members of the NTC had been involved in the nurses' trial.

A New Pandora's Box

It is not clear whether the Bulgarian government has any legal grounds to claim back the so called “debt,” as it was actually disputed and never recognized by the Qaddafi government when it was accumulating in the late 1980s.

Even within the Bulgarian government there is currently a dispute about the feasibility of pursuing this policy of recovering the "ransom" debt. The well-respected, former foreign minister Ivaylo Kalfin has said that Bulgaria’s claim is null and void from a legal point of view.

It appears that a much better (and dignified) option would be for the Bulgarian government to formally ask the new Libyan government to reopen the case of the nurses' trial, to conduct an unbiased investigation of the facts and the evidence, and to announce its findings which, it is widely expected, would entirely absolve the nurses of any crime.

But this could also open a new Pandora’s Box as the nurses' probable exoneration by the Libyan judicial system would raise the prospect of the nurses submitting claims for mistreatment and hefty compensation and of Sofia demanding the repayment of the "ransom" debt.

In a recent softening of its position, Bulgaria announced that it would send medical personnel to Libya and is ready to provide training and equipment for the new Libyan police force.

-- Nikola Krastev

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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