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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nurses Sit on Libya's Death Row

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- In 1998, at a time when her country was mired in hyperinflation, Valya Chervenyashka left her rural Bulgarian village and went to work as a nurse in Benghazi, Libya, for $250 a month, to pay for her daughters' college educations.

Today, Chervenyashka and four other Bulgarian nurses, as well as a Palestinian doctor whose family moved to Libya in 1967, are under death sentence in a Libyan jail and could face a firing squad. They are accused of intentionally infecting more than 400 hospitalized Libyan children with the AIDS virus, in order, according to the initial indictment, to undermine Libyan state security.

They were also charged with working for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

Although the motive of subversion has been dropped, the death sentence stands. The Libyan Supreme Court is to hear the nurses' final appeal on Nov. 15.

With that date approaching, President Georgi Parvanov of Bulgaria planned to raise the case at a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on Monday, Bulgarian officials said.

International AIDS specialists, including Dr. Luc Montagnier, who discovered the AIDS virus, have traveled to Libya to study the situation and have testified that the children were infected as a result of poor sanitary practices at the hospital, Al Fateh Children's Hospital, in Benghazi. The nurses have testified that they were tortured in the months after their arrest in 1999.

In a handwritten 2003 declaration to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, one, Snezhana Dimitrova, described part of the torture. "They tied my hands behind my back," she wrote. "Then they hung me from a door. It feels like they are stretching you from all sides. My torso was twisted, and my shoulders were dislocated from their joints from time to time. The pain cannot be described. The translator was shouting, 'Confess or you will die here.'"

For seven years, the nurses' plight has simmered on the back burner of international politics, especially since Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, renounced terrorism and nuclear weapons in 2003.

Last year, even as Condoleezza Rice, then the U.S. national security adviser, and Romano Prodi, then president of the European Commission, were protesting the case, the commission invited Gadhafi to Brussels for lunch, and the United States lifted the trade embargo against Libya.

But with time running out, negotiations to secure the nurses' release are "not moving well," Ivailo Kalfin, the Bulgarian foreign minister, said in a recent interview.

Solomon Passy, leader of the Committee on Foreign Policy of the Bulgarian National Assembly and a former foreign minister who has visited Libya five times on the case, said Bulgaria needed more international support, calling the nurses "hostages."

"The Libyans need to know they won't get carrots, like they won't get taken off the terrorist list, until they release the nurses," he said. Libya remains on the U.S. State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism. If the nurses were Italian or British or American, some diplomats say, the case would have provoked a major international protest.

Kalfin, the foreign minister, said with a shrug, "It is one thing when Britain raises an issue; it is another when Bulgaria raises it."

Libyan officials have suggested that Bulgaria pay $10 million in compensation for each of the 420 children Libya accuses the nurses of infecting, according to Bulgarian and European Union diplomats, saying the families might then express forgiveness toward the nurses and ask for dismissal of the court case, a procedure permitted under Islamic law.

The Libyans drew parallels to compensation payments the Libyan government agreed to make to families of the 270 people killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the work of Libyan agents.

The Bulgarian government has rejected the idea, Kalfin said, adding that Bulgaria would not pay "blood money since the nurses are not guilty."

Still, a senior European Union diplomat, speaking of covert activities on condition of anonymity, said there had been extensive "underground meetings" about a payment.

Hoping to broker a deal, the European Union has sent diplomats and medical teams to Libya to study and consult on AIDS. It has flown dozens of children to Europe from Libya for medical treatment and held training sessions for doctors in Libya.

Bulgaria recently agreed to send Libya 20 of the 50 pieces of medical equipment it had requested, and even offered to restructure the $27 million in Libyan debt it holds.