Bulgaria Celebrates Nurses' Release from Libya
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
People in Bulgaria are celebrating the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor. They'd all been held in Libya where they were sentenced to death for intentionally infecting hundreds of children with HIV. A crime they say they never committed.
NPR's Ivan Watson reports.
IVAN WATSON: Freedom, trumpeted the front page of a Bulgarian newspaper this morning. Another declared there is a God above photos of the six medics as they stepped off a French plane in Sofia yesterday.
After eight and a half years in a Libyan prison and a death sentence handed down by a Libyan court, the homecoming was an emotional one. The nurses cried and embraced relatives and loved ones who waited on the tarmac.
Ms. SNEZHANA DIMITROVA (Imprisoned Bulgarian Nurse): (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: I'm so happy, Snezhana Dimitrova told Bulgarian state radio. I don't know what to say.
Another nurse named Valentina Siropulo described the traumatic ordeal.
Ms. VALENTINA SIROPULO (Imprisoned Bulgarian Nurse): (Through translator) The only thing that got me through all these years, through the torture, through the uncertainty, through the trial, the only thing was the knowledge that in my conscience and in my soul I was innocent.
WATSON: The medics were arrested in 1999 while working at a hospital in the Libyan city of Benghazi. Libyan authorities accused them of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV. The nurses say they were tortured, sometimes with electric shocks, and forced to confess to the crime.
International AIDS experts were eventually brought in to examine the evidence against the medics. Susannah Sirkin of the organization Physicians for Human Rights says the Libyan case had no scientific evidence.
Ms. SUSANNAH SIRKIN (Deputy Director, Physicians for Human Rights): To the contrary, other international experts have traced the cause of the infection arriving at the hospital a full year before the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian medic had arrived, and have demonstrated scientifically that this particular strain of the HIV virus was already widely spreading across the hospital before these medics arrived.
WATSON: Last week, Libya commuted the death sentence against the medics to life in prison after it was announced that an international fund set up with European assistance had secured more than $400 million to compensate the families of each of the more than 400 children infected in Benghazi.
The nurses say they were awoken before dawn on Tuesday and taken to a French government plane, where they were met by a senior European diplomat and the French first lady, Cecilia Sarkozy. Moments after they landed in Bulgaria, Bulgaria's president formally pardoned the six medics.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
WATSON: In the Bulgarian capital today, residents said they were still thrilled by the news.
Mr. TRYZUB BONEV(ph): (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: This was a great day for Bulgaria, said Tryzub Bonev as he navigated his taxi down Sofia's cobblestone streets. The whole country, he added, is happy.
Sergey Stanishev, the prime minister of Bulgaria, said his small country's recent admission to the European Union had added crucial diplomatic pressure to resolving the dispute.
Prime Minister SERGEY STANISHEV (Bulgaria): (Through translator) The return of these nurses is something like a miracle. It shows very clearly to Bulgarians what it means to be a member of the European Union.
WATSON: But critics like Susannah Sirkin of Physicians Without Borders accused the EU of giving in to what she calls state-sponsored hostage-taking by Libya.
Ms. SIRKIN: We believe that the nurses and doctor have been, first of all, scapegoated for a crime they did not commit and essentially held hostage for what amounts to ransom money.
WATSON: Yesterday European officials announced an agreement to expand trade and diplomatic relations with Libya.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Sofia.
Correction July 29, 2007
An earlier version of the audio for this story misidentified Physicians for Human Rights as Physicians Without Borders. The error has been corrected in this version.