Tripoli, Dec. 25 (Reuters): Libya’s Supreme Court today scrapped death sentences against five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor and ordered a retrial of the cases which have harmed Tripoli’s efforts to build ties with the West.
The six, jailed since 1999 and convicted of infecting children with HIV, will leave the death rows of their prisons to wait for retrial, an official said. They had been sentenced to death by firing squad after a conviction which was condemned internationally and had undermined Libya’s attempts to reverse three decades of treatment as a rogue state by the West.
“They will not be considered as prisoners condemned to death after today’s ruling. They will become only defendants waiting for retrial,” the official said.
The Supreme Court accepted appeals against a lower court ruling both on substance and procedure, their lawyers said. Its decision followed an agreement last week between Libya and Bulgaria to set up a fund to help families of the sick children.
The six medical workers had been convicted of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV in the Mediterranean port city of Benghazi. More than 50 of the children have died.
They said they were innocent and their confessions extracted under torture. AIDS experts have said the outbreak started before the nurses arrived and was probably caused by poor hygiene.
“The court has accepted the appeals by the nurses and the doctor and sends the cases back to the lower court for retrial,” said Ali Alouss, the Supreme Court presiding judge.
Lawyers said it meant the death sentences were cancelled and the lower court in Benghazi which had issued the sentences will retry the cases.
“The High Council of the Judiciary Authorities, the top judiciary authority, will decide when the lower court will retry the cases,” the official said. He said the procedure usually takes two months before the lower court starts a retrial.
The Bulgarian foreign ministry said Sofia hoped the retrial and the repeal of the death sentences were “a recognition of the serious procedural breaches in the trial”.
But the relatives of the nurses reacted anxiously. “I do not know what that ruling means. How can I rejoice' What’s the difference ' death sentences, lifetime prison terms or other verdicts, when for seven years innocent people are in jail,” said Tsvetanka Siropoulu, the sister-in-law of nurse Valentina Siropoulu.