Bulgaria Celebrates Nurses' Release from Libya

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.

Bulgaria celebrates the return of five nurses who, along with a Palestinian doctor, were sentenced to death in Libya, convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. After the nurses and doctor, who is now a Bulgarian citizen, returned to the country, Bulgaria's president pardoned them all.

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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.

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U.S. Finds Diplomatic Success With Libya

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

hide captionLibyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

At a time when the United States is wrestling with an insurgency in Iraq and tensions with Iran, America's relations with Libya stand out as a diplomatic success story.

Libya, a nation once accused of sponsoring international terrorism and maintaining a secret weapons program, has rejoined the international fold. It now enjoys full — if not quite chummy — relations with the United States.

"If diplomats wrote fairy tales, this would probably be one," says BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

A History of Troubled Relations

The turnaround, though, came after two decades of tense, often hostile relations between the United States and Libya.

In 1980, the United States severed diplomatic ties, accusing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi of supporting terrorism around the world.

Relations cooled even further in 1986. President Ronald Reagan, alleging that Libya was behind the killing of two U.S. soldiers at a Berlin disco, ordered a halt to all economic ties with Libya and froze Libyan assets in the United States. Ten days later, U.S. jets bombed Libya's capital, Tripoli, as well as military bases. More than 40 people were killed, including Gadhafi's daughter.

In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. The United States and Britain blamed Libya for the attack; three years later, a U.S. court formally arraigned two Libyan intelligence agents in connection with the bombing. Libya, though, refused to hand over the men. The United Nations then imposed sanctions, isolating Libya and crippling its economy.

Mending Ties

In 1999, Gadhafi reversed course. He handed over the two Lockerbie suspects. They were tried in the Netherlands, under Scottish law. One of the men was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

That was only the beginning of Libya's efforts to mend relations with the international community. In 2003, Libya accepted legal responsibility for the Pan Am 103 bombing, agreeing to pay compensation to the victims' families.

That same year, Gadhafi announced that Libya was relinquishing its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. At the time, a foreign ministry spokesman in Tripoli said the arms race contradicts Libya's "great concern for a world that enjoys peace and security".

In response, President Bush lifted the U.S. trade embargo and, last year, restored full diplomatic ties. The State Department removed Libya from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism. U.S. tourists are now free to travel to Libya, and U.S. oil firms can once again do business in this energy-rich nation. For the first time in two decades, Libya is no longer an international pariah.

A Model for Rapprochement?

The Bush administration portrayed the Libyan "fairy tale" as an example of how diplomacy, backed up by the threat of force, can succeed. The White House even suggested the same approach might yield results with nations such as Iran, Syria and North Korea. Indeed, North Korea recently shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor — though it was not necessarily the U.S. "stick" that achieved that objective, but rather, the "carrot:" 50,000 tons of fuel oil and the release of some frozen North Korean assets.

Some analysts conclude that the Libyan example is unique.

"The politics surrounding rapprochement with Iran and Syria would be far more difficult to manage than were those with Libya," says Jon Alterman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Relations in Washington, D.C.

If anything, some analysts say, the Libyan experience underscores the need for America to hold direct, face-to-face talks with its adversaries, no matter how unseemly. In fact, the United States began holding secret talks with Gadhafi under the Clinton administration, and those talks continued when President Bush came to office.

Still others say the United States was premature in "rewarding" Libya with full diplomatic ties, while Gadhafi's human-rights record remains poor. These critics see America's rapprochement with Libya not as a fairy tale but a nightmare — proof, they say, that the United States is not sincerely interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East.

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