Libya: Death Sentences Commuted in HIV Case

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It’s been long time coming, but, as reported in this morning’s Washington Post, the five jailed Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor accused of intentionally infecting 460 Libyan children with HIV may soon go free. They have been languishing in Libyan prisons since 1999 and had been on death row since December. On Tuesday, however, Libya’s Judicial Council—great arbiter of justice that it is—commuted all six death sentences to life in prison. Now, one could argue that death is preferable to eternity spent in a Libyan jail, but there are indications that the high court’s move foreshadows the extradition of all six health workers to Bulgaria (including the Palestinian, who has been granted Bulgarian citizenship), where they would presumably be allowed to go free.

The long episode has raised passions in Libya and Bulgaria, which have both viewed the case as an issue of national pride. The European Union and the U.S. government have also weighed in, putting pressure on Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to intervene in the case. The Libyan government has long contended that the childrens’ infections were the result of a reckless HIV experiment undertaken by the six foreign health workers at medical facility in the Mediterranean port city of Benghazi. But independent investigations have concluded that the outbreak was caused by the hospital’s poor hygienic conditions, which predated the foreign workers’ arrival.

It now appears that the imminent resolution of the dispute could join the list of other conciliatory notes struck by the Libyan dictator, who in recent years has been working diligently to rehabilitate his reputation. According to the Post, a fund created by the Libyan and Bulgarian governments (under the auspices of the European Union) will compensate the families of the HIV-infected children to the tune of $1 million each; the Libyans had initially demanded $13 million per family.

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