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End in sight for medics' Libyan ordeal

A $400 million package is believed to have saved the lives of six foreign medics who faced death penalties on charges of infecting Libyan children with HIV.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Nicole ItanoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 2007



CAIRO and ATHENS

Libya closed its latest major spat with the world community when the families of 426 Libyan children asked that six foreign medics accused by the government of deliberately infecting the children with HIV be spared the death penalty.

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The victims’ families agreed to a settlement Tuesday and asked that the sentences be removed after their lawyers said each family had received their share of a deal for about $400 million. The Libyan Supreme Court had upheld death sentences for the medics last week.

Libya’s top judicial body met Tuesday to decide whether to commute the executions, issue a pardon, or determine other punishments. According to the Associated Press, who quoted an anonymous Libyan official, the court decided later on Tuesday to commute the death sentences but imposed life sentences on the medics.

"We have notified in writing that the families have relinquished their demand for the execution" of the six medics, Idriss Lagha, the head of the Libyan-based Association for the Families of HIV-Infected Children, told the Associated Press.

The May 2004 decision to sentence the six to death met with an international outcry, and in the aftermath the European Union and the Bulgarian government pressed the Libyans hard to commute the sentences or free the healthcare workers altogether. Diplomatic pressure from the international community ramped up last week when the country's top court upheld the death sentence.

While the nurses and doctor confessed to the crimes, they say that those confessions were only given under torture. Today, they deny having anything to do with the infections that resulted in the death of 50 children. Experts have also concluded that the children were contaminated due to unhygienic conditions at the hospital in the city of Benghazi.

Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, told a French newspaper the $400 million would be paid to the families and financed through debt remission, the Associated Press reported.

On Tuesday, Bulgaria's foreign minister said that the country would consider contributing to humanitarian aid to Libya, AP reported. In previous published reports, Bulgaria said it would not pay any compensation as that would imply guilt.

The case came to a head after eight years partly because of Libya's dramatic change in international relations. The country now enjoys full diplomatic relations with the US and EU. Trade sanctions and its outcast status have been dropped. In return, Libya renounced support for militant groups; ended a weapons of mass destruction program; allowed key Libyan suspects in the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people to go on trial; and agreed to $2.7 billion in payments to families of those killed in that bombing.

The final Lockerbie payment is still outstanding, a point of tension between Libya and the US. The medics' case has been inexorably linked to the Pan Am bombing. Initially, the Libyan government demanded that the families of the infected children receive $10 million each, matching the amount allocated to some families of the victims of the Pan Am bombing.

Libya also wants Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted and serving a life sentence for the Pan Am bombing, to be freed. In late June the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled that Mr. Megrahi had the right to a second appeal after evidence was uncovered that indicated he may have been wrongly convicted. Earlier this month, a UN observer appointed to watch the case wrote the British government demanding a complete new trial in light of the evidence.

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