World

Libya sentences 6 foreign workers to death

Libyan court Thursday sentences 5 Bulgarians, 1 Palestinian to death; accuses them of deliberately infecting almost 400 children with HIV

A Libyan court Thursday sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor to death on charges they deliberately infected hundreds of children with HIV.

A sixth Bulgarian, a doctor, received a four-year prison sentence for exchanging foreign currency on the black market. He had been charged with infecting patients with the virus, but his verdict did not mention the charge.

Nine Libyan hospital officials were acquitted of negligence.

Under Libyan law, anyone sentenced to the death penalty has the automatic right to appeal. Bulgarian officials have confirmed the verdict will be appealed.

The doctors and nurses had been working at the al-Fateh children's hospital in the northern Libyan town of Benghazi when they were arrested in February 1999. Their trial, which has been watched by international observers, began in 2000.

They were charged with infecting 393 children by using contaminated blood supplies. Libyan prosecutors claimed the medical workers deliberately infected the children with HIV in order to find a cure for AIDS.

They pleaded innocent, arguing poor hygiene in Libyan medical clinics likely caused the infections.

The European Union said Thursday it is shocked by the ruling.

Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen told Abdul Rahman Shalghan, the foreign minister of Libya, that the EU has "serious concerns" about irregularities during the trial. Ireland holds the EU presidency.

Dr. Luc Montagnier, the French researcher who helped discover the AIDS virus, testified the blood had been contaminated in 1997, a year before the Bulgarians worked at the hospital.

Bulgaria has accused Libya of torturing the group while in custody, saying they were electrocuted and beaten and two of the women raped.

Libya had initially accused the Bulgarians of working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Israeli intelligence.

The death sentences could impede Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's efforts to improve relations with western nations.

In 2003, he vowed to reject violence and dismantle Libya's nuclear weapons program. Last month, he met with leaders of the European Union and told them he would make Libya a leader in world peace.