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20th May 2019

EU 'shocked' at Libya death verdict for Bulgarian nurses

  • The West has been calling on the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to free the medics (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU has condemned as "unacceptable" a Libyan court decision to sentence five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death for allegedly infecting hundreds of children with HIV.

The European Commission and Finland's EU presidency expressed their shock and disappointment on Tuesday (19 December) following the announcement of the final punishment for the medics who have been in detention in the north African country for seven years.

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The six were accused of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV at a hospital in Benghazi in the 1990s, over 50 of whom having died in the meantime.

The medics deny the charges with a number of expert studies suggesting the infection was present in the hospital before their arrival and its real cause was poor hygiene.

Bulgaria's foreign ministry said the verdict "is clearly setting back the efforts to solve this painful case," stressing "any linkage of this tragedy to the work of the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor is absolutely unfounded and misleads the Libyan people and the concerned families."

Libya has asked for €10 million in compensation for each of the affected families in return for lifting the death penalty for the prisoners but Sofia has rejected the idea, claiming it would be tantamount to admitting the prisoners' guilt.

The EU last year set aside €2 million in its common budget to help AIDS victims in Libya, with the commission releasing the latest €500,000 slice of it just last Friday.

Commission vice-president Franco Frattini - involved in communication with Tripoli over the issue - stated "My first reaction is great disappointment. I am shocked by this kind of decision. I strongly hope that somehow the Libyan authorities will rethink this decision."

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his country's incoming EU presidency would push Libya to drop the sentences.

"We will continue to exert pressure under the German presidency that Libya doesn't only take part in a solution but ultimately brings about a solution," he said in Brussels.

Tuesday's verdict comes after a seven-month retrial following the supreme court's move last year to return the case to a lower court. Back in 2004, the medics were pronounced guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.

The trial is being closely watched by the Libyan population, with media reporting that relatives of the infected children who attended Tuesday's hearing reacted by shouting "God is greatest", as well as urging their leader Muammar Gaddafi "Go ahead, our falcon, in defiance of the West."

Human rights group Amnesty International has urged the EU to reconsider its future ties with Libya - in light of the medics' case.

"A justice system that imposes the death penalty after questionable trials also reinforces concerns about the EU's eagerness to cooperate with Libya in the fight against irregular migration", said Amnesty's Brussels office director Dick Oosting.

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