- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Libya’s emergence from international isolation has raised hopes for an end to the ordeal of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death on charges of infecting 426 Libyan children with the AIDS virus.

Libya has intensified contact with a number of Western countries in recent months, indicating continued political and economic opening.

At the same time, a retrial of the six prisoners was moved from Benghazi to Tripoli, Libya’s capital, and conditions of their imprisonment are said to have improved. They have been in jail for seven years.

Feim Chaushev, Bulgaria’s deputy foreign minister, was quoted as saying “there is a political will on the part of the Libyan government” to seek a solution.

Another Bulgarian official said the restoration of diplomatic relations by the United States “was a very serious stimulus for Libya to solve the problem.”

The Bush administration restored ties in May, saying that Libya was no longer a “rogue state” and that it had abandoned its nuclear and other research on weapons of mass destruction.

The six prisoners have been held since 1999 on charges that initially included efforts to undermine the Libyan state and acting as agents of foreign intelligence services such as the CIA and Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

At one point, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, claimed that the six “carried out an experiment on these children.”

Two years ago, they were sentenced to death, but the execution never took place.

Foreign visitors allowed to see the accused reported that they were in a state of physical and psychological exhaustion and that some were near insanity.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said one of the nurses told him: “For the past seven years, we have been hostages of a political witch hunt.”

Luc Montagnier, a French scientist who helped discover the virus that causes AIDS and who testified at the trial, said, “Some of the children were infected before the Bulgarian nurses arrived.”

Other witnesses said the infections were caused by poor hygienic conditions at al-Fateh Children’s Hospital in Benghazi.

Bulgaria, backed by the United States and the European Union, has offered to set up an international fund for the sick children and improve conditions at the hospital.

However, Bulgaria has refused to consider any form of compensation that would imply guilt of the medical personnel.

The United States, the European Union and Bulgaria have criticized the guilty verdict by the criminal court in Benghazi under which the nurses and Dr. Ahmed Ashraf al-Hazouz were to be executed by firing squad.

In December, the Libyan Supreme Court ordered a retrial in Tripoli.

So far five sessions have been held, the last on Tuesday.

Judge Mahmoud al-Howeissa rejected a defense request that the accused be set free on bail pending another hearing set for Aug. 29.

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