Bulgarian Nurses Face Death Sentences in Libya
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Next week, Libya's Supreme Court will decide the fate of six people: five nurses from Bulgaria and a Palestinian medic. They've been sentenced to death, found guilty of infecting more that 400 Libyan children with HIV/AIDS. Bulgaria says the nurses are innocent, and they've turned to the European Union and the United States for help. NPR's Rachel Martin sent this report from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.
RACHEL MARTIN reporting:
Antoanetta Ouzounova is a petite woman with long, blond, streaked hair, manicured nails and a timid smile. When her mother, Valya Chervenyashka, left to work as a nurse in Libya in 1997, she was only supposed to be away for a year. Instead, it's turned out to be seven years and their only communication now is a five-minute weekly phone call from her mother's prison cell in Benghazi, Libya.
(Soundbite of background cafe noise)
MARTIN: Sitting in a cafe in downtown Sofia, she flips through photographs of her mother and the four other nurses.
Ms. ANTOANETTA OUZOUNOVA (Daughter of Bulgarian Prisoner): And Nasya Nenova, Kristiana, Stravko Kuvkiyev(ph), my mother, Valentina Siropulo.
MARTIN: In May 2004, a Libyan criminal court convicted the nurses and a Palestinian medic of spreading an AIDS epidemic that affected hundreds of children and has killed more than 50. Libyan prosecutors initially charged the nurses with being part of a conspiracy involving Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, and the CIA. Antoanetta Ouzounova says that is incomprehensible.
Ms. OUZOUNOVA: Everything is very absurd. Everything.
MARTIN: She switches to Bulgarian as she fights back tears.
Ms. OUZOUNOVA: (Through Translator) In my opinion, this is a terrorist act towards my mother and all the nurses in Libya. It's totally unacceptable to tolerate acts like this.
MARTIN: Reports by the World Health Organization and independent researchers say the Libyan children were infected because of poor hygiene conditions at the Al Fateh hospital in Benghazi and that some of the infections occurred a year before the nurses arrived in Libya. Ouzounova says Bulgarian authorities have not been tough enough with Libya and have been slow to ask for international support. Dimitar Tsanchev is the spokesman for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. DIMITAR TSANCHEV (Spokesperson, Bulgaria Ministry of Foreign Affairs): This issue is complex and it involves both national interests, (unintelligible) relations, but it also involves international community, and it's not so easy to solve it.
MARTIN: In September, the European Parliament issued a report saying the nurses had been denied a fair trial and repeatedly tortured by Libyan officials. Last month, after a visit to the US by the Bulgarian president, Yorgi Parvanov, President George Bush called on Libya to release the nurses. But many Bulgarians think this pressure is too little, too late.
Lilly Marinkova is a journalist with Bulgarian National Radio and the founder of the organization to protect Bulgarians abroad. She says the Bulgarian government made a mistake by trying to prove the nurses' innocence within a corrupt Libyan legal system.
Ms. LILLY MARINKOVA (Journalist, Bulgarian National Radio): (Through Translator) The Bulgarian government has been treating the Libyan government and its legal system like the Libyans are going through a democratic transition, but recognizing a court in which people admit that they've been tortured is unacceptable.
MARTIN: Bulgaria and Libya have strong ties rooted in Cold War alliances, and every year thousands of Bulgarians, mostly health care workers, go to work in Libya, where the job market is better and salaries are higher. Analysts say Bulgaria wants to keep close ties with its wealthy Arab ally; so do the US and the European Union, who increasingly view Libya as a potential partner in the volatile Middle East, especially after its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, renounced terrorism in 2003.
Vladimir Chukov is a professor of Arabic studies at Sofia University. He says the nurses have languished in prison because the political stakes of securing their freedom are so high.
Professor VLADIMIR CHUKOV (Sofia University): The problem is how Libya have to get back in the international community with honor, with respect, not humiliated. That is the big problem.
MARTIN: The Libyans have said they would free the nurses if Bulgaria pays Libya $10 million for each infected child, an offer the Bulgarians have rejected. Instead, the Bulgarian government is working with the US and the EU on a humanitarian aid package for Libya to assist the families of the children. Meanwhile, Bulgarian officials say multilateral talks with Libya, the US and European countries over the release of the nurses are continuing. The Libyan Supreme Court is expected to give its final verdict November 15th. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Sofia, Bulgaria.
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