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Six Foreign Healthcare Workers In Libya are Released (July 2007)

On July 24, 2007, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were imprisoned in Libya for eight years on charges of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV were freed in Bulgaria.

The six were arrested in 1999 after a massive outbreak of nosocomial HIV infection was discovered at Al-Fateh Hospital in the city of Benghazi. Confessions were extracted from them under torture, which they later recanted. Their first trial, in 2004, resulted in guilty verdicts and they were sentenced to death before a firing squad; the verdict was overturned by the Libyan Supreme Court and a new trial was ordered. Evidence presented by world-renowned HIV/AIDS expert Luc Montagnier and Italian virologist Vittorio Colizzi refuted the charges against the healthcare workers and indicated the infections were most likely due to improper and unsafe infection control and injection practices, but this evidence was thrown out of court by the Libyan prosecution, leaving the six all but defenseless. Their second trial, which ended on December 19, 2006, also resulted in death sentences, but it received intense international media coverage and was accompanied by massive protests from medical, scientific and humanitiarian organizations. The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by the Libyan court on July 17, 2007; on that same day, Libya negotiated a $400 million settlement with the families of the HIV-infected children. The six workers were extradited to Bulgaria on July 24, where they received an official pardon from Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov and were released.

This is a welcome outcome to a tragic sequence of events which turned innocent healthcare workers into scapegoats for a broken healthcare system-one that gave rise to the largest outbreak of nosocomial HIV transmission on record.

Declan Butler, a senior reporter for the journal Nature, wrote extensively about the case and played a critical role in getting key scientific evidence published in the journal. Read his reflections on the case, "Liberty, Justice, HIV and Libya."