Gaddafi's Latest Victory

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Sabri El Mhedwi / EPA

The Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses who were convicted for deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV/AIDS sit in their courtroom cage.

Normally, having your death-sentence upheld would not be a good bit of news. But in the case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who have been held in an African prison for the past eight years on charges of having deliberately injected 438 children with AIDS-tainted blood, the ruling by a high court in Libya could be the beginning of the end of a high-stakes international drama. Within the next week, the nurses, now aged 41 to 54, who at one point accused their interrogators of torture and sexual abuse, may be released to return home. If they are freed, the outcome would be a victory for the European Union, which has reportedly helped negotiate a face-saving deal that includes a payout to the families of the victims of the outbreak. The other winner would be Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, whose rapprochement with the West, which started with his pledging to destroy a clandestine nuclear program in 2003, can now continue unimpeded.

It will not be a victory for the truth: the nurses themselves may not be exonerated, even though two of the world's leading AIDS specialists investigated the case and concluded that the disease was spread not by the nurses — or by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, as Libyan prosecutors originally charged — but by poor hygiene at the government-run hospitals. Some of the children were infected before the nurses even arrived. Critics have charged that Gaddafi's government needed a scapegoat for a scandal that otherwise would have been laid at his door. The new deal is unlikely to disabuse Libyans of the belief that foreigners, rather than officials with their own government, are at fault. The E.U. is also paying millions of dollars to the families of the infected children. "At least to the outside world Gaddafi comes out a winner," says Georgy Milkov, a leading journalist who has been covering the case from the beginning from Tripoli for the Bulgarian daily 24 Hours.

The nurses were first arrested back in 1999, after doctors found that the AIDS virus had spread to children at a hospital in Libya's second largest city of Benghazi. Despite international appeals for the medics' release, they were sentenced to death by firing squad in 2004. Appeals ended this week with the upholding of the sentence, an apparent technicality. The case now moves to the country's top legal body, which will have the option to annul the charges or, more likely, some observers say, to commute the sentence, which would allow the nurses (and one Palestinian doctor who is accused with them) to go free, though it is not yet clear when. In a important step that will help the Libyan judicial system save face if charges are dropped, the families of the AIDS infected children said they are willing to "pardon" the nurses.

Still, the release is far from a done deal. It's technically possible that the meeting next week will only reduce the nurses' sentences, thereby easing some international pressure, but holding the prisoners in reserve to extract more cash or concessions from the West. But Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev is optimistic. Next week's ruling, he predicted "will pave the way to a political solution. " European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso agreed: "We regret that these decisions [on the sentencing] have been taken, but I'd also like to express my confidence that a solution can be found."

If they are right, it's partly a credit to tiny Bulgaria's growing clout. The country joined the European Union in January, which allowed the 27-member body to negotiate on its behalf. The U.S. is also a strong supporter of Bulgaria thanks to its vociferous backing for U.S. operations in Iraq and elsewhere. (President Bush has called for the nurses' release.) But Western countries are also especially eager to smooth over any lingering problems with Gaddafi. Libya remains 'exhibit A' in the Western attempt to convince the world and notably Iran that giving up nuclear weapons' ambitions has its rewards. New oil deals with British and American oil companies are also being inked. On the same day that the judicial proceedings against the nurses ended this week, Washington took another important step towards reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Libya after more than a quarter of a century by appointing a new ambassador to Tripoli.

As for Gaddafi, in addition to deflecting blame for the epidemic, he appears to have benefited from a spurious accusation by winning some medical treatment and financial aid for the victims families. (The amount of money going to families is still unknown and both Bulgaria and the E.U. refuse to call it "compensation" since that implies guilt.) "We should never underestimate Libya," says the Bulgarian journalist Melkov. "Gaddafi has been able to make the West demonstrate compassion for the victims of Benghazi, while at the same time trading his aces in the best possible way on the international stage. He plays his cards very well."

With reporting by Violeta Simeonova