- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death in Libya yesterday for deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the virus that causes AIDS, in a verdict that drew condemnation on both sides of the Atlantic.

But although the United States expressed disappointment, it refused to echo the European Union’s judgment that it was the Benghazi hospital’s negligence and poor hygiene that most likely caused the HIV infections and not the medical workers.

“We are very disappointed at the outcome of this verdict,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a meeting with visiting Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin.

“We understand very much that there are children who have suffered, and we are concerned for their suffering and that of their families,” she said. “But we also are concerned that these medics will be allowed to go home at the earliest possible date. These are people who deserve to go home.”

Miss Rice promised Mr. Kalfin to “continue to work for their early return to Bulgaria.”

“There is all the reasons to believe that they are innocent and they shouldn’t be related to this tragedy, and we share compassion and sympathy in the tragedy of the children,” the minister said.

Miss Rice did not address the issue of guilt, but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to take sides, saying it was not helpful to “relitigate” the case.

“In any judicial proceeding, there are two sides to any story,” he said. “The Bulgarians have presented their side through their legal representation. The Libyan government has come down on a different side. The judicial process has rendered its verdicts at a number of different points along the way.”

Yesterday’s sentence was the second time the medics received the death penalty since they were first arrested in early 1999. They were found guilty in 2004, but a higher court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial last year, citing unspecified failings of the initial proceedings.

The families of the 426 infected children, about 50 of whom have died, have been looking for closure, and those in the courtroom yesterday were pleased by the verdict and the sentence.

But Luc Montagnier, the French scientist who co-discovered in 1983 that AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, said Libya’s death sentence was “contrary to the scientific evidence” and “senseless.”

“It’s like a return to the Middle Ages, with scapegoats who are served up for the public,” he told Agence France-Presse.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel decried the “terrible ruling,” and the International Council of Nurses and the World Medical Association rebuked the Libyan court for not allowing the hearing of evidence that the children were infected before the medics arrived in Benghazi in 1998.

The defendants’ main attorney said they planned to appeal to the Supreme Court against their latest conviction. Libyan officials said the case ultimately might be decided by a body senior to the Supreme Court, a so-called High Judicial Council led by Justice Minister Ali Omar Hasnawi.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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