Libyan court to rule July 11 in appeal of Bulgarian medics

Libya’s Supreme Court will rule on July, 11. in the appeal of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death for infecting about 400 Libyan children with the AIDS virus.

Presiding judge Fathi Dahan announced the verdict date at a session in Tripoli, saying the court has finished all proceedings in the appeal.

Libya is under intense international pressure to free the six medical personnel, who deny infecting the children. Imprisoned in Libya since 1999, they were convicted and sentenced to death a second time in December in a retrial ordered by the Supreme Court.

U.S. President George W. Bush called on Libya last week to free the medics. "We're deeply concerned about the plight of the nurses," he said during a visit to Bulgaria. "They should be released and they should be allowed to return to their families."

The case has become a sticking point in Libya's attempts to rebuild ties with Europe and the United States. During the trials, the defense brought in experts to testify that the children were infected by unhygienic conditions at a Benghazi hospital. In their testimonies, the workers said the confessions used by the prosecution had been extracted under torture

But the prosecution has insisted that the six infected the children intentionally, part of experiments aimed at finding a cure for the disease.

During Wednesday's session, the court listened to final arguments from lawyers of the nurses and the families of the infected children and from the state prosecutor, who called for the verdict to be upheld.

The nurses and the doctor were not present at the session, which was attended by ambassadors from several European countries.

The judge refused a prosecution motion that an announcement from the Bulgarian government that the Palestinian doctor had been granted Bulgarian citizenship be used as evidence against him.

Bulgaria announced Tuesday that the doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, had applied for citizenship several years ago and that the procedures for his acceptance were completed last week.

The appeal before the Supreme Court is the latest stage in the drawn out prosecution of the six, who began working at the Benghazi hospital in March 1998. The following year they were arrested after more than 400 children there contracted the HIV virus. Fifty of the children have since died.

They were first convicted and sentenced to death in 2004, but the Supreme Court ordered a retrial after an international outcry over the verdicts.

But in a ruling that shocked many in Europe, the second trial issued the same verdict in December - despite a scientific report that emerged weeks earlier saying the HIV virus had been rampant in the hospital before the six defendants began working there.

Several of the nurses have said they were raped and tortured to force confessions. Two Libyans - a police officer and a doctor - were put on trial on charges of torturing them and were later acquitted - which led to the six medics being put on a new trial for defamation.

They were acquitted of defamation in late May, a ruling that raised hopes in Bulgaria that the main conviction and death sentences against them could be overturned by the Supreme Court.