A Libyan court has convicted six foreign health workers of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the virus that causes AIDS, and has sentenced them to death. The verdict brought swift condemnation from Europe and from international human rights groups. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
The court issued the death sentences after convicting five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
A defense lawyer said the trial was unfair and the verdict will be appealed.
The defendants have been imprisoned for seven years. This is the second time they have been sentenced to death. A first trial verdict was overturned in 2005 and a new trial was ordered, after an international outcry over the fairness of the proceedings.
Human rights groups and AIDS scientists say the second trial was no better. The court refused to throw out the confessions of three of the accused, which they have repeatedly said were obtained under torture.
The court also refused to allow international AIDS experts to testify on behalf of the defense or to admit scientific research that could have pointed to the health workers' innocence.
A number of the world's most prominent AIDS researchers, including the co-discoverer of the virus, say the children were most likely infected by accident as a result of unhygienic practices in the Libyan healthcare system.
Research published recently in the scientific journal Nature found that the children were likely infected long before the foreign nurses and doctor even began working in the Bengazi clinic, possibly even three years before they arrived.
Amnesty International researcher Philip Luther said it appears the foreign health workers are being used as scapegoats.
"Well, we are certainly shocked by the decision and very disappointed by it," Luther said. "It is not a total surprise in the sense that these decisions where the judiciary is concerned in Libya tend to be rather unpredictable. But our first reaction is a strong condemnation of the verdict, of the death sentences handed down to the six foreign health professionals in Libya, and we call as a very first step on the Libyan authorities to withdraw those death sentences immediately."
The Libyan government has criticized human rights groups for, in its view, paying more attention to the accused than to the fate of the HIV infected children, at least 52 of whom have since died of AIDS.
Luther said Amnesty is concerned about the children.
"The fact of the matter is that anyone who is in any way responsible for those infections, we certainly see that they should be brought to justice," Luther said. "The fact of the matter here is that there has been such a travesty of justice and that irregular proceedings, torture and long periods of incommunicado detention do not serve that cause, do not serve the cause of those children who have suffered so terribly. They only serve to obscure the real facts in the case and make justice even harder to achieve.
Bulgaria has condemned the death sentences, and appealed to Libya to immediately release the health workers.
A number of regional analysts predict that the Libyan authorities will grant the health workers clemency after some kind of deal is reached on compensation for the victims. Bulgaria has previously ruled out paying compensation, saying its citizens were innocent.
Bulgaria is slated to join the European Union on January 1, and the issue of the nurses has strained relations between Libya and the European Union at a time when both sides were working to improve ties.