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Libya court upholds death sentence on medics
  Wed 11 Jul 2007, 8:34 GMT
By Salah Sarrar
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld death sentences on six foreign medics for infecting Libyan children with HIV, a ruling that paves the way for moves by Muammar Gaddafi's government to win their freedom.
Experts said the ruling completed the role of the judiciary in the highly-politicised trial of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, and Libya's executive can now step in and seek to secure their release subject to a deal with the families of the children.
The case is expected to go to a government-controlled High Judicial Council which will have the power to commute the sentence or even pardon them.
"The court rejects the appeals of the defendants and confirms the death penalty," judge Fathi Dhan told a five-minute hearing. The six medics were not in court to hear the ruling.
The case has blocked Libya's efforts to deepen links to the West after shaking off decades of isolation in 2003 when it scrapped its programme of prohibited weapons.
The six medics were sentenced to death in December after being convicted of infecting 426 Libyan children with the deadly virus while they worked at the children's hospital in the city of Benghazi in the 1990s.
In jail since 1999, they say they are innocent and were tortured to make them confess. Some Western scientists say negligence and poor hospital hygiene were the real culprits and that the six were made into scapegoats.
Hopes were raised for a deal to win their release on Tuesday evening when Libya's Gaddafi Foundation charity said it had reached an accord with the children's families that "puts an end to the crisis".
Libyan officials say the Council would only agree to the release of the nurses if a settlement were reached in private talks between the families and the European Union (EU) on funding for the children's medical care.
Behind the scenes talks have been taking place between the EU and the association of the families of the children on just such a possible deal -- to provide a fund of tens of millions of dollars for the families to pay for the children's future care.
Libya calls the cash "compensation" -- a term Bulgaria rejects as it says it implies the medics are guilty.
Feim Chaushev, Bulgaria's deputy foreign minister, told Reuters on hearing news of the ruling: "What matters most now is to see the High Judicial Council convening as soon as possible and taking a quick decision, which will put an end to this issue. We all hope for a speedy solution."
The families have asked for 10 million euros (6.7 million pounds) for each child, far in excess of what observers say the EU has been prepared to pay. The Gaddafi Foundation charity, run by a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam, has been a central player in facilitating the talks.
Bulgaria and its allies in Brussels and Washington have all been trying to win their release, and failure to free the nurses would carry a diplomatic cost for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya expert Saad Djebbar, a London based Algerian lawyer, said the Gaddafi Foundation's announcement of a deal with the families on the eve of the ruling appeared to be an attempt by the authorities to tell international public opinion: "Don't worry. The sentences will be commuted."
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