Bulgaria, Lockerbie, and an AIDS trial in Libya

Trial begins Saturday for six Bulgarians accused of participating in a "Western plot."

The charges sound farfetched, like something out of a cold-war spy novel.

But for six Bulgarian medical workers - accused of deliberately infecting 393 children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in a plot to destabilize the Libyan government - they are all too real.

A Libyan People's Court, which hears cases involving national security, is set to begin the trial on Saturday. Conviction would mean a death sentence.

The Bulgarians - five nurses and a doctor - have been detained since February 1999, along with a Palestinian doctor. Nine Libyans face similar, but lesser charges, including negligence. All are out on bail.

The trial has been delayed 12 times, largely at the request of defense lawyers, who say they have had great difficulty gathering necessary information. Increased international awareness, the lawyers say, may be their clients' best hope.

The long-simmering case comes in the wake of Libya's recent election to a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It also has become a hot campaign issue in Bulgaria, ahead of June 17 elections.

International and Bulgarian public concern about the legal proceedings were heightened April 27, when Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi claimed, at a high-profile AIDS conference in Nigeria, that the infections were part of a Western plot.

"Who charged them with this odious task?" the BBC reported him asking. "Some said it was the CIA. Others said it was the Mossad [Israeli intelligence]. They carried out an experiment on these children."

Colonel Qaddafi added that the Bulgarians will have "an international trial, like the Lockerbie trial." A Libyan intelligence officer is appealing his conviction in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. That trial was held under Scottish law at a special court convened at a former US military base in the Netherlands.

"In front of international legal institutions, it would be easier for both sides to defend their cases," says Vladimir Cheytanov, a lawyer hired by the Bulgarians' families. "If someone asks for a second Lockerbie trial, he should provide the same thorough process." Mr. Cheytanov has been allowed to meet his clients only four times in more than a year.

"When I read the indictment, it didn't seem rational," says Krassimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Mr. Kanev says that every aspect of the case is a human rights concern. "Deprivation of private and family life, lack of judicial independence, long detention, being held incommunicado."

The US-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission says the proceedings "appear to reflect unchecked and irrational anxieties about the violability of national boundaries and the foreign origins of HIV."

Libyan officials have declined an offer by World Health Organization officials to investigate the hospital in Benghazi where the infections occurred.

After expressing concerns to Arab ambassadors in Sofia, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova told reporters: "Bulgaria cannot and will not accept a political trial against its citizens." The government has requested the presence of Arab League monitors at the trial.

Already, Cheytanov sees evidence that international pressure is having an impact. He says the court had allowed him no legal means to defend his clients - no witnesses, no experts, no questioning of defendants - until the most recent trial date, May 13. In an emotional scene broadcast on Bulgarian television, two defendants told journalists of their torture with electric shocks. One described sharing a cell with 50 other men.

Now, Cheytanov says he will be able to question his clients in court, and later bring witnesses. The court has still not decided whether to allow expert testimony.

Libyan public anger about the children and poor medical services in general means someone needs to be held responsible, says Mohamed Kasim, secretary general of the Netherlands-based Union of Libyan Human Rights Defenders. Foreign culprits make the most convenient scapegoat.

"In Libya, there is just one man with his group who controls everything," Mr. Kasim says. "So you can't ask for a fair trial or freedom of speech or international judicial standards."

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