Questions raised about Bulgarians' release from Libya

By Ecumenical News International
July 30, 2007

The general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, the Rev Mvume Dandala, says the release of six Bulgarian medical workers has not answered the question of how 56 children died after being infected with the HIV virus, and for whose deaths the medics were sentenced to death - writes Fredrick Nzwili.

"Our understanding is that these people went through the normal system of justice of the Libyan law," said Dandala, a South African Methodist, who heads the African church grouping.

He continued: "If their being released was based on a pardon by the Libyan authorities according to their processes, one would expect their release as a humanitarian gesture."

The medical workers - five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who has now become a Bulgarian - arrived in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, on 24 July 2007. Soon after their return, the country's president, Georgi Parvanov, granted all six pardons, and they were freed.

The Libyan authorities had originally arrested the nurses and doctor, and imprisoned them for having deliberately infected 426 Libyan children with the HIV virus.

"We are innocent. That is why we are here," said Palestinian-born Dr Ashraf Alhajouj. "We just need to wait for the truth; it will come out soon."

In 1999, the medical workers were told they were being accused of deliberately infecting the Libyan children with the HIV virus. Eight years of incarceration then followed, and although confessions by the accused were submitted to the courts, they said they had been tortured.

Twice, the Libyan courts sentenced the group to death but the country's top judicial body eventually commuted the sentences on 17 July, following a reported European Union deal to compensate the victims' families.

There has been much media speculation that compensation and the promise of more diplomatic contacts with Libya led to the release.

"If that indeed is the case, then it reflects badly on the value attached to African life," said Dandala. "It leaves unanswered the question on how the children were infected, and this is disturbing."

Some medical experts have speculated that the children were probably infected as a result of poor infection control procedures, and have said that many of the children had been infected before the Bulgarian workers arrived in Libya in 1998.

"Whilst not wanting to peddle conspiracy theories regarding the origins and spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa, actions of this kind tend to lend credence to the sense that the developed world does not always appreciate the pain that Africa is subjected to by this pandemic," said Dandala.

The US-based Human Rights Watch has criticised Libya over a dismal human rights record, and has called for international attention to be given to press freedom in the country, the need for legal reforms and the handling of people held in custody.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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