TRIPOLI, Libya -- A court convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor yesterday of deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV and sentenced them to death, despite scientific evidence the youngsters had the virus before the medical workers arrived in Libya.
The United States and Europe reacted with outrage to the verdict, which prolongs a case that has hurt Libya's ties to the West. The six co-defendants have already served seven years in jail.
The sentence brought cheers in Libya, where there is widespread public anger over the infections. The Libyan press has long depicted the medical workers as guilty.
After the sentence was pronounced, dozens of relatives outside the Tripoli court chanted "Execution! Execution!" Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, shouted, "God is great! Long live the Libyan judiciary!"
But the ruling stunned the defendants. They were convicted and sentenced to death a year ago, but the Libyan Supreme Court ordered a retrial after an international outcry that the first trial was unfair. The case now returns to the Supreme Court for an automatic appeal.
"This sentence was another blow, another shock for us," Zdravko Georgiev, the husband of one of the nurses, Kristiana Valcheva, said in Bulgaria.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin in Washington, said the United States was "very disappointed with the outcome" and urged the medical workers be freed and "allowed to go home at the earliest possible date."
The European Union said it was "shocked" by the verdict. Spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said the EU had not yet decided to take steps against Libya while the ruling is appealed -- but he "did not rule anything out." Bulgaria will join the EU on Jan. 1.
The nurses and doctor have been in jail since 1999 on charges that they intentionally spread the HIV virus to more than 400 children at a hospital in the city of Benghazi during what Libya says was a botched experiment to find a cure for AIDS. Fifty of the children have died, and the rest have been treated in Europe.
Bulgaria and European officials have blamed the infections on unhygienic practices at the hospital and accuse Libya of making the medical workers scapegoats.
An analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from some of the children concluded the viral strains were circulating at the hospital and the surrounding area well before the nurses and doctor arrived in March 1998, according to research published this month on the website of the journal Nature.
The case has been deeply politicized from the start. International anger over the prosecution has hampered, though not halted, Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy's efforts to end his pariah status with the West.
Over the summer, the United States restored ties with Libya, cut since 1980, and removed it from its terror list after Khadafy renounced weapons of mass destruction and reached a compensation deal for victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland. The United States quietly reopened its embassy in Tripoli, but Rice has balked at visiting Libya for a formal opening ceremony.
On the Libyan side, Khadafy's government faces intense popular pressure for a guilty verdict. Clashes broke out in Benghazi when the Supreme Court ordered a retrial in December. Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi has been a center for anti-Khadhafy Islamic fundamentalist groups in the past and an innocent verdict could fuel opposition to the government -- particularly if conditions at the hospital were to blame for the infections.
Khadafy has tried to reach a deal by which Bulgaria would pay compensation to the victims, a proposal Sofia has rejected, saying it would imply the nurses' guilt. The defendants have said they were tortured in their detention, and two of the nurses -- who are all women -- said they were raped. A Libyan court acquitted Libyan prison officials of the charge.
Some 50 relatives of the infected children demonstrated outside the court Tuesday, holding poster-sized pictures of their children and bearing placards that read "Death for the children killers" and "HIV made in Bulgaria."
Inside, the defendants sat stony-faced and did not react as the judge delivered the verdict.
In Bulgaria, President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev called the ruling "absurd" and urged Libyan authorities "to intervene immediately" to reconsider it and free the defendants.
The case was sent to the Libyan Supreme Court for appeal, but it was not known when the court would rule. If it upholds the ruling, the case goes to the Judicial Board, which can uphold or annul it, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said.
An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, criticized the retrial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence. "We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one," Cantier said.
Luc Montagnier, the French doctor who was a co-discoverer of HIV, testified in the first trial that the deadly virus was active in the hospital before the Bulgarian nurses began their contracts there in 1998. More evidence for that argument surfaced on Dec. 6 -- too late to be submitted in court -- when Nature magazine published the analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples from the children.