Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty Images
Zorka Anachkova, mother of jailed nurse Kristiana Valcheva, stands next to a banner reading "Innocent." Libya's Supreme Court upheld the death penalty against five nurses and doctor convicted of infecting children with the AIDS virus.
Libya's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the death sentences of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting more than 400 children with the AIDS virus.
But the verdict may not be the final word in the case.
Libya's Supreme Judicial Council, which is headed by the minister of justice, could approve or reject the convictions or set lighter sentences. Libya's foreign minister said the council would convene Monday.
Libya has been under intense international pressure to free the six, who deny infecting the children. The case has become a sticking point in Libya's attempts to rebuild ties with the United States and Europe. President Bush called on Libya last month to free the medics.
"The court has accepted the appeal in principal but rejects its content, therefore the court decided to uphold the verdict against them," Judge Fathi Dahan said in court. The five nurses and the Palestinian doctor were not present for the appeal hearing.
About 20 relatives of children who were infected with HIV rejoiced at the court's ruling and chanted: "Long live justice."
"This is a victory for the Libyan judiciary system. We are awaiting the execution of the death sentence," said the families' lawyer Al-Monseif Khalifa.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, relatives of the medical workers released white doves in front of the Libyan Embassy in what they called a sign of hope that their loved ones will soon be free.
"This is a farce. How can you condemn to death innocent people?" said Zorka Anachkova, mother of nurse Kristiana Valcheva. "I've been waiting and praying for eight years to see my daughter coming back home."
The six began working at the hospital in the city of Benghazi in 1998 and were arrested the next year after more than 400 children there contracted HIV. Fifty of the children died.
The prosecution insists that the six infected the children intentionally in experiments to find a cure for AIDS. Defense experts testified that the children were infected by unhygienic hospital conditions. The workers testified that confessions used by the prosecution had been extracted under torture. Several of the nurses said they were raped to force confessions.
The medical workers, who have been in custody since 1999, were convicted and sentenced to death in 2004, but the Supreme Court ordered a retrial after an international outcry over the verdicts.
In a ruling that shocked many in Europe, the second trial ended with the same verdict in December despite a scientific report weeks earlier saying HIV was rampant in the hospital before the six began working there.
European leaders expressed disappointment at the ruling but said they remained hopeful the case would be resolved.
"We regret that these decisions have been taken, but I'd also like to express my confidence that a solution will be found," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Strasbourg, France.
Chief Bulgarian prosecutor Boris Velchev also voiced hope that politicians will achieve what the Libyan court has not - a pardon of the nurses and their return to Bulgaria.
"The case is now entirely in the hands of politicians," Velchev said.
From The Associated Press.