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Sweet Freedom!

Sweet Freedom!


After eight years the Libyan prosecution of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV ended in July with the release of the medics in Bulgaria. But a whirlwind of behind-the-scenes pressure, international intrigue, and perhaps even trickery that resolved the situation was astonishing even for a case in which bizarre twists and turns had been commonplace. The six health workers were arrested in 1999 and accused of infecting upwards of 400 children with HIV at a hospital in Benghazi. Although HIV experts worldwide had testified that lax clinical practices at the hospital most likely caused the infections, Libyan leader Mu'ammar Gadhafi claimed the health workers were part of a conspiracy between the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Israel's secret service to destabilize the country. Other Libyan officials leveled charges of secret AIDS research. Libyan prosecutors produced confessions, which the health workers rejected as having been coerced through torture that included beating, rape, and electric shock. Over the ensuing years charges were filed, dropped, and refiled. Court dates were set, postponed, canceled, reset, and postponed again. A Libyan court convicted the medics in 2004 and sentenced them to death'only to have the verdicts overturned a year later. A second trial in 2006 produced another round of convictions and death sentences. But a final flurry of diplomacy this summer brought the health workers to freedom. First, international pressure led Libyan officials to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment. Then negotiations spearheaded by French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy resulted in the extradition of the prisoners to Bulgaria. Upon their arrival Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov immediately issued full pardons. Although other details of the negotiations are still unclear, it appears European Union officials pledged as much as $400 million to a Libyan AIDS fund as well as offered Libya a package of economic and political incentives. So the eight-year ordeal would seem to have been brought to an unorthodox'but definitive'conclusion. But not so fast. Now a Bulgarian probe could result in charges of torture against 11 Libyan law enforcement officials and prison terms of up to 10 years if the officials are convicted. 'We can forgive but cannot forget what happened to us,' nurse Nasya Nenova, who along with the other medics plans to testify against the Libyans.

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