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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 December 2006, 16:18 GMT
Speculation over Libya death sentences
Libyan protesters
Some Libyans have called for the swift execution of the sentences
Following the death sentences imposed by a Libyan court on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, Professor George Joffe examines the likely consequences of the verdict.

Now that the five nurses and their Palestinian colleague have been sentenced to death for the second time for having allegedly deliberately infected over 400 children with HIV/Aids eight years ago in a Benghazi hospital, most commentators are wondering whether the Libyan authorities really mean to let them be executed.

After all, were that to happen, all the work done by the Gaddafi regime in rebuilding its bridges with the West would simply be wasted, as Western governments, spurred by public opinion, would isolate Libya once again or, worse still, impose new sanctions.

In fact, it is still too early to anticipate that, even though some of the victims' families hoped for a speedy imposition of the sentence yesterday.

Judicial process

All cases in Libya carrying a capital sentence have to go to the supreme court and, even if it decides not to interfere, administrative decision can intervene.

The High Judicial Council, presided over by the minister of justice, can grant pardons or commute sentences.

All that, however, is probably months away, for one of the oddities of this case is that the Libyan authorities have been insistent on respect for the country's legal system and will thus ensure that everything is done by the book - and that, in Libya, means that it will be very slow.

The sensitivity over the legal process is hardly surprising, in view of the stringent criticisms that have been voiced over it by foreign observers.

The Libyan courts have refused on two occasions to accept the evidence of internationally-recognised medical experts that HIV infection was present in the hospital even before the nurses arrived and that the children had already been infected by the time they did.

Figures of up to $10 million per family have been mentioned - just the level of the compensation for the families of the Lockerbie disaster.

They have also ignored evidence of dreadful shortcomings in the medical system that ensured that the disease was passed on by poor hygienic practices.

Even Colonel Gaddafi himself ignored the advice of 114 Nobel Prize laureates to accept the evidence and end the trial.

The major reason for this - and one that will bear on the final outcome - is that the Gaddafi regime has always had a tense relationship with the populations of Cyrenaica and, in particular, Benghazi.

He has been anxious not to exacerbate the situation by ignoring the very genuine anger of the victims' families, even if it meant tolerating the charade of the trial, and that is going to apply to finding a solution now.


In fact, the way forward has been known for a long time, as the Libyan foreign and justice ministers implied yesterday at a press conference.

The legal niceties will be attended to and then the High Judicial Council will intervene, either to pardon the accused or to commute their sentences and, perhaps, to allow them to serve them out in Bulgaria.

Then the hard bargaining starts.

The colonel will have to have something to assuage the families and the Libyans anticipate this will be in the form of compensation.

Condemned Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor
Bulgaria sees paying compensation as an admission of guilt

Figures of up to $10 million (5m) per family have been mentioned - just the level of the compensation for the families of the Lockerbie disaster.

This, no doubt, is wildly ambitious and Libya's expectations will have to be downgraded, especially if the United States and the European Union are to be involved.

There is already a contact group of the US, Britain, Bulgaria and Libya discussing the issue and the Union has already put aside 500,000 euros (335,000) to upgrade facilities in the hospital concerned.

Of course, the payments will not be called compensation but "humanitarian assistance" and Bulgaria adamantly refuses to be associated with them, for that would to admit guilt.

But that will be the way out and will be a small price to pay for access to Libya's oil - with new concessions to be announced today.

All that remains is to establish how much it is going to cost.

Inside the Libyan court as the verdicts are read out

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