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French Version

Jailed Bulgarian nurse in Libya begs for help

"Don't forget us," a Bulgarian nurse who is behind bars accused of infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus begged during a prison visit by the French foreign minister Thursday. "We are innocent," said nurse Kristiana Vulcheva, who was on the verge of tears as she sat next to Philippe Douste-Blazy inside the Jdeida prison on the outskirts of Tripoli.

"We know very well we are hostages of a political witch [hunt]," said Vulcheva, who along with four colleagues and a Palestinian doctor have spent nearly seven years in prison and could face death by firing squad if their appeal is rejected.

The six were sentenced to death in May 2004 over a controversial case in which they were convicted of deliberately infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV.

Fifty-one of the children have since died of AIDS.

Libya's supreme court late last year ordered a retrial for the six, who have based their appeal on the testimony of Western experts who said the infections were caused by unsanitary conditions at the hospital.

"We are innocent, [just like] the children contaminated. We are victims, too," said Palestinian doctor Ahmad Ashraf al-Hadjudi.

Because one of the nurses was ill, only four were able to meet with Douste-Blazy, a cardiologist by training.

Douste-Blazy said he was "happy" that he had been allowed to meet the imprisoned medics, voicing hope "this nightmare was nearing an end." As diplomatic efforts aimed at securing leniency for the medics have faltered, Douste-Blazy embarked on the trip to pitch a French proposal to the Libyan authorities.

The plan would aim to treat the most gravely ill Libyan children in France, as well as improve training for personnel and provide better equipment for the Benghazi hospital where the infections occurred.

Douste-Blazy was to head to the northeastern town of Benghazi later in the day to visit the hospital and meet families of the infected children.

Bulgaria said it was grateful for France's active engagement in the case. "Bulgaria greatly appreciates France's efforts toward resolving the plight of our nurses in Libya and the infected children," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told AFP.

Libya's supreme court on December 25 ordered a retrial, effectively overturning the death sentences and giving new hope that the prisoners could one day be released.

Libyan Justice Minister Ali Hasnawi told AFP at the time that the new trial would be held "in one month" and there would be "new judges."

The families of hundreds of Libyan AIDS infected children have demanded $10 million for each child in compensation.

Talks over compensation payments between Bulgarian officials and Libyan families of HIV positive children are to resume January 15.

Bulgaria announced last month it was creating a fund for AIDS-infected children in Libya, a move greeted in some quarters as heralding a possible breakthrough in the stalemate.

Bulgaria's President Georgy Parvanov has admitted that a release of the nurses would "have a very high price" and it remains unclear what role the fund will play in finding any eventual solution.

All six defendants had pleaded not guilty ahead of their conviction in May 2004. Two of the nurses and the doctor said during the trial that they were tortured into confessing.

The Benghazi court that first condemned the medics had rejected testimony from foreign experts that the epidemic was due to a lack of hygiene.

Instead the court based its verdict on a report by Libyan experts that blamed the foreign health workers.

Beirut,01 09 2006
The Daily Star
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