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Libya lifts execution of medics

Kin of infected are compensated

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor allegedly spread HIV to Libyan children. From left are Valia Georgieva Cherveniashka, Nasia Stoitcheva Nenova, Kristiana Malinova Valcheva, Valentina Manolova Siropulo, Snezhana Ivanova Dimitrova, and Ashraf Ahmad Juma Hajuj. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor allegedly spread HIV to Libyan children. From left are Valia Georgieva Cherveniashka, Nasia Stoitcheva Nenova, Kristiana Malinova Valcheva, Valentina Manolova Siropulo, Snezhana Ivanova Dimitrova, and Ashraf Ahmad Juma Hajuj. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images-file)

TRIPOLI, Libya -- The death sentences for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV have been commuted to life in prison, Libya's foreign minister said yesterday .

The ruling was made after the families of the children each received $1 million and agreed to drop their demand for the execution of the six, who deny having infected more than 400 children and say their confessions were extracted under torture.

Libya remains under intense international pressure to free the medical workers, and Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said Tripoli was willing to consider the medics' deportation to Bulgaria. He said the negotiations would take place within "the legal framework and political context" between the two countries.

"In return [for a transfer], improving the conditions of the infected children and their families should be taken into account," he said.

Bulgaria's chief prosecutor, Kamen Mihov, said requests would be made today to have the medics leave Libya shortly. They have been jailed since 1999.

But the medics' main Libyan defense lawyer, Osman al-Bizant, told the Al-Jazeera television network that their deportation would depend on "whether there is the possibility of carrying out the punishment there" in Bulgaria.

Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin of Bulgaria called the Supreme Judiciary Council's ruling "a huge step in the right direction." Asked whether it was possible the medics would be pardoned after returning home, Kalfin said, "All judicial options are real."

Libya's Supreme Court upheld the six medics' death sentences last week, but Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said the country's Supreme Judiciary Council decided yesterday to commute the sentences to life in prison. The council is a government body that can overrule the court.

"Issuing this decision automatically closes the legal case against them," Shalqam said.

Speaking to journalists after the ruling, Kalfin said the case would be closed for Bulgaria only when "our citizens return to their homeland."

Specialists and outside scientific reports have said the children were contaminated as a result of unhygienic conditions at a hospital in the northeastern coastal city of Benghazi. Fifty of the infected children died.

The United States and European Union welcomed the move by the Libyan Judicial Council, which could remove an obstacle toward rebuilding ties with Moammar Khadafy's regime.

Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman, said the United States was encouraged by the decision. "We urge the Libyan government to now find a way to allow the medics to return home," he added.

"The fact that [Libya's] High Judicial Council did not uphold the death sentence is a first relief," said a joint statement by the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and the EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

"However, our objective is a solution which allows for the departure of the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical personnel from Libya and their transfer to the EU as soon as possible."

The husband of jailed nurse Kristiana Malinova Valcheva said he was relieved.

"Thank God the death sentences were dropped," Zdravko Georgiev said in a radio interview from Tripoli. "But I cannot make any forecast how long the upcoming procedures will last."

Idriss Lagha, head of the Association for the Families of HIV-Infected Children, an organization based in Libya, said the families had dropped their demand for the medics to be executed after each received the compensation they were due under a settlement reached last week.

"All the families have received their cash transfer, $1 million for each infection," Lagha said.

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