Libya Overturns Convictions in HIV Infection Case
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Libya's Supreme Court has overturned the death sentences of six foreign health workers who've been convicted of infecting children at a Libyan hospital with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The fate of five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor have been the subject of diplomatic pressure and negotiation for several years and it now appears that there is a resolution in sight. Craig Smith of The New York Times has written about this story and joins us from Paris.
And, Craig Smith, some background. In 1998, these Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were working in Libya at a hospital. What happened?
Mr. CRAIG SMITH (The New York Times): Shortly after they arrived, children at the hospital began testing positive with the HIV virus. And the pattern of infections matched very closely the wards in which the nurses and the doctor were working. So they were eventually arrested and charged with having deliberately infected the children.
SIEGEL: They were accused, convicted, sentenced, not for negligence in this matter, but the idea was the Libyans said they had purposely infected Libyan children with HIV.
Mr. CRAIG: That's right. As a matter of fact, the initial accusations were even more extreme than that. They were accused of being agents of Israel's Mossad. Those extreme allegations were dropped by the time the case got to trial. But yeah, they were accused of doing it deliberately. There was evidence introduced that alleged that one of the nurses--that there'd been vials of HIV-tainted blood found in one of the apartments of the nurses. And then there were confessions by a number of the nurses. It was later shown that they had done so under torture.
SIEGEL: What is at least a more benign explanation of how hundreds of children got infected with HIV at the hospital?
Mr. CRAIG: Well, there've been several AIDS experts that have visited the hospital and the consensus is that there was very poor hygienic controls, that needles were being reused in particular, and that the infections probably began before the nurses arrived.
SIEGEL: Now as the Bulgarians were protesting the death sentence on behalf of the nurses, as the European Union became involved, Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, insisted this was strictly a judicial matter, but his son told you a year ago no one's going to die in this case.
Mr. CRAIG: Yeah, Libya is a very confusing place because it's never quite clear who's in charge. Gadhafi makes a great show of saying that his institutions are independent, but no one certainly believes that. And then his son plays an intermediary role in a lot of these cases where Libya's at odds with the West. So he became involved and began saying very confidently that no one was going to be executed, that it was simply a matter of the Bulgarians paying adequate compensation.
SIEGEL: Well, just a couple of days before the death sentences were overturned by the Libyan Supreme Court, it was announced that Bulgaria will not be paying ransom--those weren't the terms--but they would be contributing to a foundation for the support of Libyan children who'd been infected with HIV.
Mr. CRAIG: That's right. And that's something that the justice system wanted to be paid in the context of a quote-unquote "blood money," which, under the Islamic justice system that operates in Libya, then would allow the families to forgive the nurses. But Bulgaria didn't want to do it in that context because that meant some guilt on the part of the nurses. So there's been a year-long negotiation over how this would happen. And they finally come up with this international charity-funding affect that will be primarily funded by the Bulgarians.
SIEGEL: Craig Smith of The New York Times. Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CRAIG: Thank you.
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