Sentence Commuted for Nurses, Doctor in HIV Case

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In Libya, the death sentence has been commuted to life in prison for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. Families of the children each received $1 million in compensation.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It appears that the eight-year long ordeal of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, all of whom worked at a hospital in Libya, may be nearing an end. When children they treated contracted HIV, they were charged with and convicted of intentionally poisoning them, in an attempt to undermine the Libyan state. They were sentenced to death. Well, today the death sentences, which it only recently been reaffirmed, were commuted.

Journalist Matthew Brunwasser joins us now from Sofia, Bulgaria. And I assumed in Bulgaria this is very welcome news.

Mr. MATTHEW BRUNWASSER (Journalist, Bulgaria): This is very welcome news. Bulgaria has been following the three separate trials for eight years and this is indeed very good news.

SIEGEL: What was the deal that seems to have been worked out today that's resulted in the commutation of sentence?

Mr. BRUNWASSER: The commutation has actually been spoken about for years by experts following the case. Libyan law allows the paying of blood money to victims' families who can then offer a pardon, and considering the pardon of the families of the infected children, the Supreme Judicial Council of Libya today was able to commute the sentences to life in prison. The council was also able to offer a complete annulment of the sentences, but it chose not to.

SIEGEL: But this means that there are going to be payments made to hundreds of families whose children contracted HIV and according to this trial had been infected by these health workers.

Mr. BRUNWASSER: Yes, the payment involves more than $400 million. A spokesman for the infected children's families had said the payment worked out to be about $1 million per family.

SIEGEL: And who's paying that money?

Mr. BRUNWASSER: It's not clear. It's very difficult to see from the outside what is happening in Libya. The son of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif al-Islam, heads a foundation, which was involved in the negotiations with the families. He had told a French newspaper that the compensation would be financed in the form of debt remission from East European countries in terms of their Cold War-era debts. But at the same time last week, the Libyan foreign minister had said the compensation would be paid by certain European countries and charitable organizations and from the Libyan state. So it's really not clear where exactly the money is coming from. All that is known is that it was transferred to the accounts of the families yesterday, and they were able to withdraw funds today.

SIEGEL: Now, we should point out here that while this payment of what looks an awful lot-like, and has been described by critics as effectively ransoming these people from the clutches of the Libyan judicial system, they have protested, and international bodies have said there is nothing to the charge that they actually intentionally infected anyone with HIV.

Mr. BRUNWASSER: Yes, it is definitely being seen that way in Bulgaria. The agreements, in many ways, seems like the only way for Qaddafi to save face. He has been in a very difficult political situation between the anger of the families in Benghazi, which is the region of the strongest opposition to his regime. And at the same time, the international pressure has been growing steadily for years, especially since Bulgaria joined the European Union this January.

SIEGEL: And so, Muammar Qaddafi has been able, finally, to deliver to Bulgaria these people who have been victimized in Libya and also to deliver payment to the parents of the children who contracted AIDS at that hospital.

Mr. BRUNWASSER: Yes. But I don't think people in Bulgaria will feel very comfortable until the medics are on the plane back home. But, yes, according to most analysts and observers, Qadaffi has won.

SIEGEL: Well, journalist Matthew Brunwasser in Sofia, Bulgaria, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BRUNWASSER: You're welcome.

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