Summary and Current Status
Five Bulgarian nurses (Valya Georgieva Chervenyashka, Snezhana Ivanova Dimitrova, Nasya Stojcheva Nenova, Valentina Manolova Siropulo, and Kristiana Malinova Valcheva), as well as one Palestinian medical doctor (Ashraf Ahmad Jum’a al-Hajuj), were arrested in early 1999 and subsequently charged with deliberately infecting several hundred children with the HIV virus and causing the deaths of 40 while working in al-Fateh Children’s Hospital in Benghazi, Libya. On May 6, 2004, they were sentenced to death by firing squad by the Benghazi Criminal Court. They were also reportedly ordered to pay compensation of U.S. $1 million to the family of each child who died from the infection. The six health professionals appealed their conviction. On December 25, 2005, Libya’s Supreme Court accepted their appeal of the death sentence that had been pending against them, reportedly on both substantive and procedural counts, and ordered a retrial. The retrial, which lasted from May 2006 to November 2006, before the same court as the first trial again found the six defendants guilty and again sentenced them to death. On July 12, 2007, Libya’s Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and death sentence of the six health professionals. On July 17, 2007, the Libyan High Judicial Council commuted their death sentence to life in prison.
On July 24, 2007—eight and a half years after their arrest on charges of intentionally infecting children with the HIV virus in a Libyan pediatric hospital—the six health professionals were freed from jail and immediately extradited to Bulgaria. Upon arrival in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, they were officially pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. (The Palestinian medical doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Jum’a al-Hajuj, was granted Bulgarian citizenship so that he could benefit from a treaty between Libya and Bulgaria that allowed for the extradition of the health professionals.) The health professionals were brought to Bulgaria aboard a French presidential plane, escorted by European Union External Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy. Their release was the result of lengthy and complex negotiations between Libya and the European Union, including payment of approximately U.S. $1 million to the family of each infected child and an agreement of enhanced relations between Libya and the European Union. According to press statements by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam—head of the Gaddafi Foundation which facilitated negotiations between the Libyan state and the families of the infected children—Libya provided the payments to each child’s family; and Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic contributed by forgiving Libya’s foreign debt. Other countries, including the United States, reportedly contributed humanitarian aid.
According to Libyan official statistics, the first case of a child contracting AIDS was registered in June 1998. By the end of November 1998, there reportedly were 50 children who had tested positive for HIV in Benghazi. This sudden surge in the number of infected children reportedly prompted the Libyan authorities to start an investigation. On January 25, 1999, the Libyan police arrested Ashraf Ahmad Jum’a al-Hajuj, a Palestinian medical doctor who had been working at the Al-Fateh Children’s Hospital in Benghazi. His confession, reportedly obtained under severe torture, appears to have prompted the ensuing wave of arrests of Bulgarian health professionals. On February 9, 1999, 23 members of an international medical team of Bulgarian health professionals—including the above-named five nurses—who reportedly worked in several different hospitals in Benghazi, were arrested, reportedly without being informed of the reasons for their arrest. Eighteen of the Bulgarian health professionals were subsequently released. The five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian medical doctor, named above, have remained in custody ever since. One of the nurses, Kristiana Valcheva, reportedly never worked at the Al-Fateh Children’s Hospital.
On May 15, 1999, the case was referred to Libya’s People’s Prosecution Office, which subsequently brought the following charges against the six defendants: commission of acts within Libyan territory leading to the indiscriminate killing of people for the purpose of subversion of the security of the state; involvement in a conspiracy and collusion for the commission of the above premeditated crimes; deliberately causing an epidemic by injecting 393 children (23 of whom died before October 1999) at the Al-Fateh Hospital for children in Benghazi with the AIDS virus; and commission of acts that are contrary to Libyan laws and traditions , i.e. illegal production of alcohol, drinking alcohol in public places, illegal transactions in foreign currency, and illicit sexual relationships.
Zdravko Marinov Georgiev, a Bulgarian medical doctor and the husband of Kristiana Valcheva, was arrested as well when he arrived in Benghazi ten days after his wife’s arrest to try to help her. He was charged with illegal possession of and transactions in foreign currency. Dr. Georgiev was convicted in the same proceedings as the other defendants in May 2004 and was sentenced to four years in prison. Because he had already been behind bars for more than four years, he reportedly was released immediately following the May 2004 court ruling.
The defendants’ trial, which began on February 7, 2000, and was delayed numerous times—including because it was moved from a state security court to a criminal court when it was determined that the defendants had not been involved in a conspiracy by the CIA and Mossad to undermine state security as had been originally alleged—lasted more than three years. At the trial—that was attended by some 15 foreign diplomats—prosecutors said the health professionals had intentionally infected the children with HIV-contaminated blood. All of the defendants have maintained their innocence from the beginning and pleaded innocent at their trial. The CHR believes that the trial violated both international fair trial standards and Libyan domestic law. For example, two internationally prominent and respected medical experts—French scientist Luc Montaignier (a co-discoverer of the HIV virus and director of the Viral Oncology Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris) and Professor Vittorio Colizzi (head of the Laboratory of Immunochemical and Molecular Pathology in the Biology Department of Tor Vergata University in Rome), who were appointed by the Gaddafi Foundation (headed by the son of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi) to investigate the cause of the HIV infection—reportedly testified at the trial that the evidence used to convict the health professionals was both inadequate and inconsistent. They presented scientific evidence during the trial that reliably demonstrated that the infections resulted, not from ill will, but from negligence and poor hospital hygiene. They also presented scientific evidence showing that some of the infections predated the defendants’ arrival at the hospital and others occurred after they were arrested. The scientists’ evidence, however, was reportedly ignored by the court. The six defendants were found guilty of deliberately infecting several hundred children with the HIV virus and causing the deaths of 40. On May 6, 2004, they were sentenced to death by firing squad by the Benghazi Criminal Court.
In addition, the so-called “confessions” that were obtained from some of the defendants and used to convict all six of them were reportedly obtained under severe torture. Although the victims testified in court that they had been tortured and retracted their confessions on the grounds that they had been forcibly coerced, their confessions were nevertheless entered into evidence at the trial by the prosecution. We understand that eight members of the security forces and two others (a doctor and a translator) in their employ were charged in connection with the torture. They were brought to trial alongside the foreign health professionals before the same criminal court in Benghazi, but the court ruled that it was not competent to examine their cases. After repeated delays, the trial took place in a lower court. Following numerous delays in the proceedings, the court ruled on June 7, 2005, that those charged with allegedly torturing the health professionals were not guilty due to lack of evidence.
The six health professionals subsequently appealed their conviction. On December 25, 2005, Libya’s Supreme Court accepted the health professionals’ appeal of their death sentence, reportedly on both substantive and procedural counts, and ordered a retrial. The new trial—which, like the first trial, was held in the Benghazi Criminal Court, the town in northern Libya where the infections took place—began on May 11, 2006. Judge Mahmoud Hawisa presided over the trial. The first hearing was brief. The judge refused the defendants’ request to be released on bail and adjourned the trial on procedural grounds for a month. On June 13 a brief plenary session was held to examine the case, and the trial was adjourned to June 20 to allow the court to hear witnesses and examine new documents provided by the defense lawyers. The lawyers for the defense requested a new expert opinion on the cause of the AIDS outbreak in the Benghazi pediatric hospital because of the incompatibility of the two existing assessments. (As noted above, AIDS experts Dr. Luc Montaignier and Professor Vittorio Colizzi concluded that the outbreak was caused by lack of proper hygiene at the hospital. Libyan experts said that the defendants had knowingly caused the infections.)
At the third session, on June 20, Judge Hawisa accepted the defense lawyers’ request to hold sessions every two weeks instead of every week to allow the Bulgarian members of the defense team time to travel and prepare their defense. The defense lawyers also requested the court to consider allowing Dr. Montaignier and Professor Colizzi to testify at the new trial (which was denied) and allowing 26 new witnesses from Benghazi to testify as well. The fourth hearing was held on July 4. The judge formally stated that the health professionals were being charged with having “spread an epidemic.” The court heard testimony from several witnesses for the prosecution. Further hearings took place on July 25 and August 31. The September 21 hearing was adjourned until October 31, pending an improvement in the health of the Bulgarian nurses’ main defense lawyer, Othman al-Bizanti, who had been hospitalized. Subsequent hearings were held on October 31 and November 4. On December 19, 2006, the court again found the six health professionals guilty of knowingly infecting hundreds of children with the HIV virus and again sentenced them to death. The defendants were given 60 days to appeal the verdict to Libya’s Supreme Court. Mr. al-Bizanti filed an appeal of the death sentence on behalf of the defendants on February 17, 2007, the last appeal that could be submitted by the defendants.
In late January 2007 Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s son—Seif al-Islam—announced in an interview with the Bulgarian newspaper, 24 Hours, that Libya will not execute the nurses and doctor. “We have proposed a road map with solutions [satisfying] all parties: the parents, the Libyan government, the Bulgarian side, the EU,” he explained, adding that the “plan” includes “substantial compensation for the families of those affected” and has already been discussed with the foreign ministers of Germany and France. Mr. al-Islam was also quoted as saying that, “The case went in the wrong direction from the very beginning. There were many manipulations in the original files, many errors. This is why we should seek a compromise.”
As noted in the “Summary and Current status” section, the health professionals’ conviction and death sentence were upheld by the Supreme Court on July 12, 2007. Five days later the Libyan High Judicial Council commuted their death sentence to life in prison. On July 24, 2007, the six health professionals were released from jail and extradited to Bulgaria, where they were immediately pardoned.
With regard to the allegations of torture by the defendants, the chief district prosecutor in Sofia, Bulgaria—Nikolay Kokinov—announced at a press conference on January 31, 2007, that a judicial enquiry has been opened against 11 Libyan police officers for allegedly torturing the five nurses to extract “confessions.” He said that the officers “will be investigated and might eventually be brought to trial for having forced the five Bulgarian nurses to give false testimony exposing them as perpetrators of a crime.” Mr. Kokinov reportedly noted that a successful investigation would depend heavily on cooperation by the Libyan authorities, including their willingness to provide materials on the case and conduct interrogations. Furthermore, an eventual trial in Bulgaria would only be possible if the prosecution was successful in having the police officers extradited.
In February 2007, just a few days after the judicial enquiry was opened in Bulgaria, charges of slander were brought against the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian medical doctor for accusing three Libyan policemen and a medical doctor of torturing them to extract confessions. On May 27, 2007, a criminal court in Tripoli acquitted the defendants of the charges of slander.
The six health professionals were initially held in Judeida prison in Tripoli, where they reportedly received death threats from other inmates. Subsequently, they were transferred to a prison in Benghazi and remained there for the duration of the trial. In September 2004 the six health professionals were sent back to Judeida prison, but were placed in an apartment block in the prison yard that reportedly was built specifically for them in order to ensure their safety. They reportedly were held in the apartment block in Judeida prison until their release.
The international community was extremely active in appealing for the release of the six health professionals. For example, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, then European Commission President Romano Prodi, former Yugoslav President Zoran Lilic, and Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic traveled to Libya to plead for the release of the Bulgarians and Palestinian. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly raised the cases of the five nurses and medical doctor with the Libyan authorities and urged their prompt release. The European Union (EU), in particular Italy, which took a leading role in working with the Libyan authorities to find a just and acceptable solution to the case, is also providing help to the HIV-positive children and their families. In November 2004 the European Commission launched its Action Plan to coordinate the provision of humanitarian assistance to the children and their families by taking concrete measures to bring the quality of care at the Benghazi Centre for Infectious Diseases and Immunology up to international standards.
In September 2005 the EU signed an agreement to provide the Benghazi pediatric hospital with medical staff to supervise care, to reorganize the hospital’s departments dealing with epidemics, and to train the Libyan staff there. The EU has also offered to provide medical training in Europe to Libyan health professionals. In late 2005, a few days before the Libyan Supreme Court made its ruling to send the case for a retrial, the Bulgarian government, joined by the U.S. and British governments and the European Union, set up the International Benghazi Families Support Fund to provide improved medical assistance to the children infected with AIDS and to help the victims’ families.
The international scientific community was active in seeking the release of the health professionals as well. Presidents Bruce Alberts and Harvey Fineberg, of the NAS and IOM respectively, sent a joint appeal in August 2004 to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in behalf of the six health professionals sentenced to death.
In November 2006 114 Nobel Laureates in the sciences sent an open letter to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi expressing grave concern about the imprisoned Bulgarian and Palestinian medics and urging the appropriate authorities to use their good offices to ensure that proper consideration be given by the court to scientific evidence. On December 6, 2006, Nature published a scientific paper detailing a study led by an international team of researchers from Oxford and Rome. Using the genetic sequences of the viruses from the patients, they reconstructed the mutations that occurred in the virus over time and were able to demonstrate that the HIV strain with which the Libyan children had been infected was present long before the medics arrived in Libya. Regretfully this new evidence was not taken into consideration by the court in deciding the verdict of the case. On January 3, 2007, the International Council for Science (ICSU) issued a statement—“ICSU protests against death-sentence for six health workers in Libya”—appealing to its member organizations to urge Libya to ensure full consideration of the scientific evidence relevant to the case.