Page last updated at 16:58 GMT, Tuesday, 17 July 2007 17:58 UK

Libya starts handout of HIV funds

Five of the medics at the Libyan high court (file image from 31 October 2006)
The imprisonment of the medics has caused an international outcry

Libya has begun distributing funds to the families of children with HIV under a deal that could free foreign medics condemned to death for infecting them.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were convicted of deliberately starting a HIV epidemic at a children's hospital. They deny this.

Libya's Supreme Court last week upheld the death sentences, placing their fate with the High Judicial Council.

The council, a semi-political body, is due to meet on Tuesday.

It has the power to commute sentences or issue pardons.

1999: 19 Bulgarian medics and a Palestinian doctor are arrested at a Benghazi hospital after an outbreak of HIV/Aids among children. 13 are later freed
May 2004: Libya convicts and sentences five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor for infecting children with HIV. A Bulgarian doctor is freed
Dec 2005: Libyan Supreme Court overturns the convictions and orders a retrial
Dec 2006: Medics sentenced to death a second time
Feb 2007: Medics appeal to the Libyan Supreme Court
June 2007: Top EU officials hold talks in Libya to try to secure medics' release
11 July 2007: Libya's Supreme Court upholds death sentences

The families of the infected children recently accepted a compensation deal worth $1 million per child.

The BBC's Rana Jawad, in the Libyan capital Tripoli, says that under Islamic law financial compensation offsets the death penalty.

The deal indicates that it is highly unlikely that the death penalty verdicts will be upheld, she adds.

At the weekend the medics signed a letter of request for pardon and mercy, as well as a document ruling out any further legal action against the Libyan state over the prison time they have so far served.

A spokesman for the families, Idriss Lagha, told Reuters news agency that more than half of the families had received compensation so far.

"When all the families have received the money, a deal will be announced... and a declaration by the families will be sent to the High Judiciary Council, which will then be authorised to take the appropriate decision on the medics," he said.

Othman Bizanti, a leading lawyer for the nurses, said he had "great hope" the council would decide to free the medics.

'Diplomatic price'

The medics were convicted of deliberately injecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood. Fifty-six children have since died.

The six, who have been in prison since 1999, say they are innocent and that they were tortured to confess.

Foreign experts say the infections started before the medics arrived at the hospital, and are more likely to have been a result of poor hygiene.

Bulgaria, its allies in the European Union, and the United States say Libya has used the case to deflect criticism from its run-down health service.

They have also suggested that not freeing the nurses could carry a diplomatic price for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who is seeking to emerge from more than three decades of diplomatic isolation.

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