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Libya court upholds death sentences for 6

HIV infection of 400 alleged

Four of the five nurses and the doctor appeared in court in Tripoli, Libya, last May. Four of the five nurses and the doctor appeared in court in Tripoli, Libya, last May. (file 2006/Younes Mabrouk/reuters)

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Libya's Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentences of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting more than 400 children with HIV.

But the verdict, which has caused an international outcry, could still be overturned by the country's highest judicial authority, which Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said would meet on the case Monday. The Supreme Judiciary Council, headed by the minister of justice, could approve or reject the convictions, or set lighter sentences.

"The court has accepted the appeal in principle but rejects its content. Therefore the court decided to uphold the verdict against them," Judge Fathi Dahan said.

Some families of the infected children rejoiced in front of the Supreme Court in Tripoli after the verdict.

"This is a victory for the Libyan judiciary system. We are awaiting the execution of the death sentence," said the families' lawyer, Al-Monseif Khalifa.

In announcing the verdict, the judge did not mention a settlement with families of victims announced Tuesday by a foundation headed by the son of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy.

Salah Abdessalem, the spokesman for the Khadafy International Foundation for Charity Associations, said the settlement was "acceptable to all parties" and would "end the crisis." The foundation is headed by Seif al Islam, who has been active for months in trying to resolve the case of the medics.

Libyan officials close to the arrangement said that it involved financial compensation for the families and that the death sentences were expected to be commuted to prison time. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"There is still a settlement," Abdessalem said after the verdict. He would not elaborate.

The five nurses and the Palestinian doctor, who have been jailed for the past eight years, were not present for the hearing.

They deny the accusations, saying confessions that they infected the children were extracted under torture. Defense experts and outside reports have said the children were contaminated because of unhygienic conditions, and HIV was rampant in the hospital before the six began working there. Fifty of the children have died.

Libya has been under intense international pressure to free the six medics, and the case has become an obstacle in the regime's attempts to rebuild ties with the United States and Europe.

Several European leaders yesterday expressed disappointment over the court's ruling but said they remained hopeful the case would still be resolved.

"We regret that these decisions have been taken, but I'd also like to express my confidence that a solution will be found," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said he expected "a swift solution by Libya's Supreme Judicial Council to finally complete the case."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called for the medics to be freed despite the verdict.