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Helping Nurses in Libya

Bernd Riegert (kjb)April 23, 2007

For years, five Bulgarian nurses have been held captive in Libya for allegedly having infected children with HIV. Now a new initiative in Brussels is demanding the EU step up its effort to help free the women.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death in 2004Image: AP

"Bring them home!" said Pat Cox, former president of the European Parliament and current president of the citizens' organization "European Movement."

Pat Cox erhält Karlspreis
Pat Cox heads the citizens' initiative that is campaigning for the nurses' releaseImage: AP

The five nurses from Bulgaria and the Palestinian doctor who have been imprisoned in Libya for eight years and sentenced to death must finally be set free, Cox said.

Libya has accused the nurses and doctor of having deliberately infected 426 children in the city of Benghazi with HIV -- an accusation that the EU sees as completely absurd. Investigations have shown that the infections were a result of poor hygienic conditions in the hospital.

Appeals to the EU

Family members of the detainees have been putting pressure on the EU to do more for the detainees.

"We've heard enough words of solidarity," said Marian Georgiev, the son of another doctor who hasn't been arrested, but has been restricted from leaving Libya.

"So far the European institutions haven't really helped us," Georgiev said. "We're demanding effective involvement that brings results, so that we have leverage to rescue the innocent nurses."

Angehörige der Opfer im sogenannten Aidsprozess jubeln nach der Urteilsverkündigung Todesurteil im Prozess der bulgarischen Krankenschwestern bestätigt
A group of Libyans, some relatives of the infected children, cheered the verdict death verdictImage: AP

Political relations between the EU and the Libyan regime under Moammar Gadhafi have improved over the past few years. The EU covers the cost of medical treatment for the HIV-infected children and supports the hospital in Benghazi. Financial aid has also been offered to the children's families.

EU diplomats assume that Libya is drawing out the process in order to boost up the price. On the other hand, diplomats warn that too much pressure could have a negative effect.

"They're at the end of their strength"

In 2001, several Bulgarian journalists and relatives of the detainees managed to speak briefly with the prisoners. One woman complained of severe torture with electroshock devices and inhumane conditions.

Earlier this year, the daughter-in-law of one of the detainees was able to visit the prison.

"They are very weak," she reported in Brussels after the visit. "After eight years of detainment, they're at the end of their strength. For this reason, we are appealing to the media not to forget these people."

Six fractions in the European Parliament have expressed their support for the family members' appeal. Bulgaria has been an EU member since its accession to the bloc on Jan. 1, 2007.

The EU should put more pressure on Libya, even if the country's strong oil trade may put economic interests at stake, said Graham Watson from the Liberal Party.

"I challenge the EU not only to discuss sanctions but the foreign minister of each and every member state should ask the Libyan ambassador to its country each week what progress has been made toward the release of the nurses and the doctor," Watson said.