Thursday, July 26, 2007

Freed by Libya, Medical Workers Arrive in Bulgaria

July 24, 2007
Freed by Libya, Medical Workers Arrive in Bulgaria

SOFIA, Bulgaria, July 24 — After more than eight years in jail in Libya, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor stepped off the French presidential plane here in Bulgaria’s capital early this morning where they were greeted by crying relatives and Bulgaria’s top officials.

They were accompanied by the European Union’s foreign affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and the wife of France’s president, Cécilia Sarkozy, who had helped secure their release and had flown with the medical workers from Libya.

In a press conference at the airport terminal, standing in front of the nurses, Bulgarian foreign minister, Ivailo Kalfin, said that the Bulgarian president, Georgi Parvanov, had pardoned the medical workers, thus ending all their legal liabilities, to the emotional applause of the waiting crowd.

“I waited so long for this moment,” one of the nurses, Snezhana Dimitrova, said on being reunited with her family, the Associated Press reported.

The release completes a rapprochement with Libya, which not long ago was largely shunned in the world community. A turning point came when it publicly abandoned a program to develop weapons of mass destruction and made payments to the families of the people who died in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. That led to Washington restoring diplomatic ties.

Libya’s foreign minister said that Libya and the European Union agreed to develop a “full partnership” after the release of the medical workers, with the Europeans promising help for Libyan hospitals and infrastructure.

In Brussels, the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, said today the European Union would now move to normalize trade and political ties with Libya.

“We hope to go on further normalizing our relations with Libya, our relations with Libya were in a large extent blocked by the non-settlement of this medics issue,” Mr. Barroso told reporters.

The medical workers’ plight began in 1999 when they were charged with intentionally infecting 400 Libyan children with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, at the Benghazi Children’s Hospital where they worked in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city.

The Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, said that the nurses had acted on the orders of the Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, and that their actions were part of a plot to destabilize the Libyan state.

The release comes at the end of eight years of imprisonment, alleged torture to extract confessions, three trials, and two separate death sentences. Bulgaria consistently said the medical workers were not guilty.

It follows the dramatic intervention by Mrs. Sarkozy, the French president’s wife, whose direct diplomatic initiative to free the medical workers over recent weeks has rattled other European Union officials and even officials in France’s own foreign ministry.

The deal for the medical workers’ release included measures to improve the medical care of children with AIDS in Libya, the French presidential palace said, without giving details.

Following the release today, the French president said he would travel to Libya on Wednesday “to help Libya rejoin the international community.” He said neither France nor the European Union paid any money to Libya for the medical workers’ release. Mr. Sarkozy thanked Qatar for mediating their release but gave no further details about the role that the small Persian Gulf country may have played in resolving the crisis.

Both Mr. Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, will visit Bulgaria in September, the office of the Bulgarian president said.

Libya agreed to release the medical workers only after the families of the infected children accepted about $1 million each last week in exchange for dropping their demands for the medical workers to be executed.

Under Libya’s legal code, which follows Islamic law, the families had the right to grant clemency in return for “blood money.” They had demanded $10 million for each child infected, the same amount that Libya agreed to pay each of the families of the 270 people killed in the Lockerbie bombing.

The families received the $1 million payments after Bulgaria agreed to forgive Libya’s cold-war-era foreign debt, freeing the cash that was paid as compensation.

Colonel Qaddafi’s son, Seif al Islam, who heads a foundation which directed negotiations between the families and the Libyan state, said that Libya provided the money, following the agreement to forgive the debt.

He said Slovakia, Croatia and the Czech Republic had also contributed by forgiving Libyan debt, making up the more than $400 million that was transferred to the families, although these countries deny the claim.

After the families of the infected children received the payments, Libya’s highest judicial council last week commuted the medical workers’ death sentences to life in prison.

That opened the way for the medical workers to be sent to Bulgaria, where they could be pardoned under a 1984 prisoner exchange agreement.

Bulgaria has a bilateral agreement with Libya that provides for citizens of one country convicted of crimes in the other to serve their sentences at home.

In June, Bulgaria granted the Palestinian doctor citizenship to make him eligible for transfer under the agreement.

”Welcome home and may there be no more big causes in the future which we need to call on our partners to help us with,” said Mr. Kalfin, the Bulgarian foreign minister, who thanked public opinion in Bulgaria and Europe, the media, and Bulgaria’s European partners for helping win the release. Bulgaria formally joined the European Union in January this year.

Ms. Ferrero-Waldner said the release of the medical workers by Libya would improve that country’s relations with the European Union. “This decision will open the way for a new and enhanced relationship between the E.U. and Libya and reinforce our ties with the Mediterranean region and the whole of Africa,” she said.

The Libyan foreign minister, Abdul-Rahman Shalqam, told reporters in Tripoli that an agreement signed between Libya and the European Union calls for “the preparation of a full partnership” between the two countries.

He said the European Union could start to include Libya in regional trade and aid ties with other Mediterranean countries.

The medical workers and their families spoke of their relief following their release.

“I don’t want to look back, I want to look forward,” Zlatko Georgiev, a Bulgarian doctor who was also caught up in the confrontation, told reporters. He served four years in Libya, then was released but not permitted to leave Libya. He returned today with the nurses and Palestinian doctor.

“I feel wonderful, I’m happy,” said Marian Georgiev, the son of Zdravko Georgiev, one of the detained medical workers, and stepson of Kristyana Vulcheva, the nurse who was named as ringleader of the alleged conspiracy to infect the children.

He said the first thing he and his family did after leaving the airport was to visit Mr. Georgiev’s elderly parents in Sofia.

He spoke to a reporter on the phone from the presidential residence in Sofia, where he said the families were due to stay for several days “for all kinds of medical tests.” He said: “Normal life is never going to return. That which they took away from us will never come back.”

He said: "I know the French helped us a lot, and the European Union as a whole. Libya treated us like hostages. Unfortunately, Bulgaria is a small and weak country."

Gathered outside the airport gate to witness the workers’ homecoming was a small crowd of well-wishers who shouted “welcome” and “victory,” and waved flags and banners as the nurses left in vans after the press conference.

“We still feel that Bulgaria is still partly under the Iron Curtain, so this is a diplomatic victory which will let us have a little more confidence in our future,” said Nartsislav Nikolov, 40, who works in international leasing.

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