A Libyan court yesterday condemned to death five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of spreading HIV-AIDS among hundreds of children in a hospital, in a verdict greeted with shock by the international community.
The defendants burst into tears on hearing the verdict while the families of sick or dead victims started to celebrate, singing and dancing outside the heavily protected Tripoli court.
Defense lawyer Othman Bizanti told journalists that an appeal would be filed before Libya's supreme court within the legal time-limit of 60 days, in the last recourse open to the medics.
The accused had worked at al-Fateh hospital in Benghazi, Libya's seaside second city on the Mediterranean, where it was alleged they had infected 426 children with HIV. All six pleaded not guilty.
Bulgaria's parliamentary speaker urged Libya not to carry out the sentences.
"We categorically and decisively reject the confirmation of the death sentences... [and] express our deepest conviction that such verdicts cannot and must not be carried out," speaker Georgy Pirinski said.
Amid international outrage over the case, EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini expressed shock and called for the verdict to be reviewed.
"I'm shocked by this decision," said Frattini outside the European Parliament in Brussels. "I strongly hope that the Libyan authorities will rethink this decision" which poses "an obstacle to cooperation with the EU."
Christiana Malinova Valcheva, Valia Georgieva Cherveniashka, Nasia Stoitcheva Nenova, Valentina Manolova Siropulo and Snezhana Ivanova Dimitrova were convicted along with the doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Juma.
The medics, held for the past seven years, had already been sentenced in May 2004 to face a firing squad before Libya's supreme court ordered a retrial following an appeal last December.
"I am happy with the verdict, which shows the impartiality of the Libyan justice system," said Abullah Moghrabi, lawyer for the families.
In its verdict, the court ordered the Libyan state to pay families between US$250,000 and US$900,000 for each victim.
An eight-year-old, Nuri al-Orfi, yesterday became the latest victim to die of the disease, according to a family member, raising the overall death toll to 53.
Relatives of the victims carried portraits of their dead or sick children outside the courtroom as Libyan security forces fired into the air before the verdict was read out to keep the crowds at bay.
"Why me?" were the poignant words on one picture.
"Will I live for long?" asked another.
Bizanti was attacked by angry relatives as he entered the court complex on foot after security guards prevented him from going in by car.
Prosecutors had called for the death penalty for the so-called Benghazi Six, despite reports in respected scientific journals in Britain and the US rejecting the charges.
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