Saturday September 22, 2001

Libya AIDS Trial Verdict Put Off

By DONNA ABU-NASR,  Associated Press Writer



CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Libyan judges put off a verdict in the case of seven foreigners accused of injecting 393 children with the AIDS virus, saying Saturday that they needed more time to study defense arguments.

The six Bulgarians and one Palestinian - all doctors and nurses - face the death penalty if convicted of murder and conspiracy. They are accused of injecting the children with HIV-contaminated blood, but it was unclear if all those allegedly infected have died.

"The court decided to continue studying the rebuttals presented by the defense lawyers due to the size and importance of the case,'' the head of the three-judge panel said, according to Othman el-Bezanti, the lawyer defending the Bulgarians.

A verdict is expected at the next hearing, set for Dec. 22, el-Bezanti told the Associated Press by telephone from Libya's capital, Tripoli.

The delay ``shows that there is no firm evidence about the guilt of our citizens,'' said Elene Poptodorova, spokeswoman for the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry in Sofia.

``The postponement gives hope that the time until Dec. 22 will be used to review all the facts,'' Poptodorova said.

Held since February 1999, the defendants have pleaded innocent. Some have complained that their interrogators forced false confessions from them using torture.

The high-profile case has prompted protests from human rights groups, with Amnesty International saying ``there have been serious irregularities in ... pretrial proceedings.''

Bulgaria has accused Libya of holding a political trial against its nationals and has repeatedly called for an independent team of international experts to study the case and testify.

The court has refused to allow expert opinion from Switzerland and France.

El-Bezanti said that in explaining the reasons to postpone the verdict, the judges said "the court is keen on making sure defendants get all the guarantees Libyan laws ensure.''

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has claimed that the CIA or the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, were ultimately behind the children's' illnesses.

Critics charge that Libya could be trying to divert attention from horrendous medical conditions at some of its state-run hospitals where, they say, disposable instruments are repeatedly reused and basic rules of hygiene are not observed.

Libya could also be trying to make Bulgaria forgive it its debts, estimated at $300 million, some say.

The case of the allegedly infected children was first brought to light in 1998 by the Libyan magazine La in the coastal city of Benghazi, where the Al-Fateh children's hospital is located. The government closed La a few weeks after the reports were published.

Besides the murder and conspiracy counts, the Bulgarians are charged with drinking in public - alcohol is banned in Libya - and engaging in extramarital sex.

Nine Libyans charged in the same case are out on bail.