TRIPOLI, Libya – The Libyan supreme court on Sunday overturned death sentences for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who have been in jail since 1999 on allegations they purposely infected children with the AIDS virus.
The case has poisoned Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s efforts to improve ties with the West and he is believed looking for a face-saving way out of the standoff. The supreme court ordered the six defendants retried, saying there were “irregularities” in the case’s handling.
The U.S. government and European Union had condemned the convictions and accused Libya of trumping up the charges to divert attention from poor hygiene at its hospitals that the critics blame for the infections.
The supreme court’s ruling came three days after U.S., European and Libyan negotiators reached a deal to set up a fund to help families of the 426 children infected in the 1990s with HIV. About 50 of the children are said to have died.
Emotions are also inflamed in Libya. Relatives of the infected children angrily protested Sunday’s ruling at Green Square in central Tripoli. Some set fire to tires and clashed with police. Four demonstrators were arrested.
Libya accused the six health workers of deliberately infecting the children at a Benghazi hospital as part of an experiment. The health workers said they were tortured to extract confessions.
In the ruling Sunday, the supreme court’s chief judge, Ali al-Alous, suggested he believed the defense. He said prosecutors had agreed with defense lawyers that there were “irregularities” in the arrest and the interrogation of the medical workers.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Justin Higgins said “our understanding is that this decision is a positive development since it removes the risk of the death sentence being carried out.”
“The international community is working with Libya to find an overall solution,” Higgins said. “As we have made clear before, we believe a way should be found to allow the medics to return to their homes. We’ll continue to support these efforts.”
Bulgaria welcomed the verdict as a “positive sign” and said it hoped for a quick retrial.
“The Libyan court’s decision is an encouraging step toward a final recognition of the innocence of our compatriots,” said Bulgaria’s parliament speaker, Georgi Pirinski.
The defendants did not attend Sunday’s session. A date for the retrial was not immediately set.
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