In an eight-year-old case that could harm Libya's improving
relations with the West, a Tripoli court will announce Tuesday
whether five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor should be
sentenced to death for allegedly infecting hundreds of Libyan
children with HIV.
International HIV experts have concluded that the virus could not
have come from the foreign medics in 1998, but was present earlier.
So the case, say observers, is about far more than the scientific
evidence. With Bulgaria set to join the European Union on Jan. 1,
Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi could use the fate of the nurses
as a bargaining chip in his country's historically stormy relations
"From a scientific point of view, [the medics] are clearly
innocent," says Declan Butler, a senior reporter for Nature, the
world's top peer-reviewed scientific journal, which has led an
international campaign on behalf of the accused. "But there are
clearly economic and political stakes here. We have to be vigilant
that these six aren't shelved or sacrificed."
Libya has indicated it would offer clemency in exchange for
reparations of $13.11 million paid to each of the 426 children's
families - an amount that would far exceed the $2.7 billion Libya
paid for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270
people over Lockerbie, Scotland, and spurred Libya's international
Meanwhile, Bulgarian authorities here would face an unenviable
choice: In effect admit wrongdoing by paying compensation for the
release of their nurses - women who, in interviews with Human Rights
Watch and others, have accused their captors of using rape and
torture to extract confessions - or refuse to concede and let them
"The position here is, if we pay for de facto hostages, we are
politically admitting our guilt," says Emil Tsenkov, an analyst with
the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the Bulgarian
capital. "It could also encourage similar behavior in the future."
Yet Qaddafi also appears to have backed himself into a corner.
The infection took place at the al-Fatah Hospital in Benghazi, a
Mediterranean coastal area and hotbed of dissent toward one of the
toughest dictatorships in the world. Casting the spotlight on what
foreign observers say is probably the real culprit - the Libyan
healthcare system - could trigger public outrage and rattle the
Meanwhile, the families of the infected children - who are now
being treated in Italian and French hospitals - demand justice from
those whom Tripoli and the state-controlled Libyan media blame: the
"It's very difficult to understand the stance of those in
solidarity with the accused," wrote the Al-Shams newspaper recently,
according to Reuters. "Who deserves greater reason for solidarity -
the children who are dying without having committed any offense, or
those in white coats who distributed death and wiped the smile from
the lips of hundreds of families?"
The Bulgarian nurses were independent contractors in Libya,
continuing a practice begun decades ago when communist Bulgaria sent
its medics to ideologically friendly nations, many in the Arab