Bulgaria entered the New Year united behind the campaign “You Are Not Alone” to free five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya. Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Ivailo Kalfin, told OBG that “we [the government] are going to focus on the case as our priority” and added that he was “very grateful” for the support of the international community in the battle to free the nurses.
The nurses and a Palestinian doctor, whom overwhelming scientific evidence indicates are innocent, have been languishing in Libyan prisons since February 1999 under charges of deliberately infecting more than 400 hospitalised children with the HIV virus.
“The court has refused to take into account extensive scientific evidence showing that the tragedy of Benghazi has nothing to do with the Bulgarian nurses,” Kalfin told OBG in an exclusive interview. “There is an expectation that the Libyan judicial system will adhere to international standards.” He also re-emphasised Bulgaria’s sympathy for the infected children, saying, “we remain in solidarity with the children – it is a tragedy for them.”
The medics, known as the “Benghazi Six” after the Libyan city in which the hospital is located, were first tried between 2000 and 2002, when the case was rejected. They were then convicted and sentenced to death in 2004, but Libya's Supreme Court ordered a retrial. On December 19, they were sentenced to death in a third trial. Two of the Bulgarians had previously confessed, allegedly after torture, but later rescinded their confessions.
The defence team will now take the case back to the Supreme Court, whose decision will be final.
The case has attracted international attention over the past seven years, with US President George W Bush saying “I want them free”, and the passing of the capital sentence bringing it to the front of the news agenda again.
Prosecutors claimed that the medics deliberately injected children with HIV-infected blood during secret experiments to find a cure for AIDS. Fifty-two of the children have since died, while the remaining 374 are being treated at centres in France and Italy.
Reports by several influential bodies have concluded that the nurses did not deliberately inject the children with HIV. In January 1999, the World Health Organisation reported that HIV transmission was caused by poor hygiene practices with regards to catheters and syringes. In September 2003, an investigation by microbiologists Professor Luc Montagnier and Professor Vittorio Colizzi, appointed by the Libyan government, concluded that the first HIV infection was in April 1997, before the Bulgarian nurses had arrived in the country. The report stated that,“there is no evidence that correlates infections with the presence of the Bulgarian staff…no evidence has been found for a deliberate injection of HIV contaminated material.”
In November 2005, the British press reported that Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi would order the release of the Benghazi Six in exchange for the return to Libya of convicted Pan-Am Flight 103 (Lockerbie) bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, who is currently serving a life sentence in the UK for 270 counts of murder, as well as “compensation” estimated at $2.7bn.
The EU, together with the US and Bulgaria (prior to the country’s EU accession), have set up a fund to help the children, but refuse to link this to the supposed “guilt” of the medics.
Some have suggested that the medics were being held as “bargaining counters” or even “hostages” by the Libyan authorities at a delicate time in the country’s relations with the EU and the US. Gaddafi’s recent shift to a more pro-Western stance since the nurses’ arrest, and Libya’s desire to be in the Barcelona trade agreement with the EU means that Libya has a lot to lose.
On Tuesday, Kalfin and US Ambassador to Sofia John Beyrle met and agreed that there was no connection between the Lockerbie case and the HIV trial. Local press reported that the leaders concurred “at this stage” that it was “unacceptable” to talk of an exchange of prisoners. Beyrle reiterated the US’s support for the medics as a “good ally” of Bulgaria.
Georgi Gotev, the deputy chief editor of Bulgarian newspaper Standart, which has been leading the “You Are Not Alone” campaign, told OBG that he hoped the new publicity of the case would help set the medics free. “I have been following and writing extensively on the case for seven years now, and I have some optimism that with EU membership, we will maybe have more chance of influencing Tripoli. On the public opinion level, we need to raise awareness; the campaign should be international. We need every single public person to speak up for putting an end to this hostage-taking.”
The mood in Sofia is defiant and even positive, as most seem to believe that it is only a matter of time before the nurses are released.