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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Medics Get Death Sentences in Tripoli

TRIPOLI, Libya -- A court on Tuesday convicted five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor of deliberately infecting 400 children with the HIV virus and sentenced them to death, provoking condemnation from the EU and Bulgaria and shouts of joy in Tripoli.

"Long live the Libyan judiciary!" yelled Ibrahim Mohammed al-Aurabi, the father of an infected child, as soon as the presiding judge finished reading the verdict in the Tripoli courtroom.

Bulgaria and the European Union swiftly condemned the decision, with Bulgaria reiterating its belief that the children were infected by unhygienic conditions in their Benghazi hospital.

"Sentencing innocent people to death is an attempt to cover up the real culprits and the real reasons for the AIDS outbreak in Benghazi," Bulgarian parliamentary head Georgi Pirinski said.

"[EU Commission] President [Jose Manuel] Barroso and the European Commission are shocked by this verdict," EU spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said in Brussels. Bulgaria will join the EU on Jan. 1.

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam said the case would automatically be referred to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court has reviewed the case, it will be heard by the Judicial Board, which can overturn the ruling, he said. He did not name the members of the board, but said it had "a political dimension," alluding to international pressure on Libya.

The long trial of the six foreign medical workers has held up Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's efforts to rebuild ties with the West. Europe and the United States have called for the medics' release, indicating that relations with Libya would be affected by the verdict.

The presiding judge, Mahmoud Hawissa, took only seven minutes to confirm the presence of the accused and read the judgment in the longest and most politicized court process in modern Libyan history.

The six defendants, detained for nearly seven years, had previously been convicted and condemned to death, but Libyan judges granted them a retrial last year after international protests over the fairness of the proceedings. They sat stone-faced and did not react as the judge delivered the verdict on Tuesday.

An international legal observer, Francois Cantier of Lawyers Without Borders, promptly criticized the retrial for failing to admit enough scientific evidence, including evidence uncovered this month that the virus was contracted years before the defendants started working at the hospital. "We need scientific evidence. It is a medical issue, not only a judicial one," Cantier said.

Libyans strongly supported a conviction. Some 50 relatives of the infected children -- about 50 of whom have already died of AIDS -- waited outside the court holding pictures of their children and bearing placards that read "Death for the children killers" and "HIV made in Bulgaria."