Jul 11, 2007
TRIPOLI, Libya (Reuters) -- Libya's highest judicial body said on Tuesday it had commuted the death sentences against six foreign medics to life imprisonment.
"The High Judicial Council decided to commute the death sentences against the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to life-imprisonment terms," the council said in a brief statement.
The decision was a "positive step forward" but not an end to the ordeal, a senior U.S. State Department official said Tuesday.
"We are encouraged at the commutation of the death sentences and we hope they will result in a way to let the medics return home," said senior State Department official David Welch.
Earlier in the day, a financial settlement was announced that appeared to clear the way for the change in sentence.
Libya has distributed funds to more than half the Libyan families of children with HIV under a deal involving the medics who allegedly infected them, a spokesman for the families said on Tuesday.
The financial settlement may lead to a close for the eight-year legal case surrounding the medics and children, as well as remove a major obstacle to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's return to the international fold after years of diplomatic isolation.
"More than half of the families have received the compensation money and the remaining families would get the payout money within the next few hours," Idriss Lagha told Reuters.
"When all the families have received the money, a deal will be announced, likely within the next six hours, and a declaration by the families will be sent to the High Judiciary Council which will then be authorized to take the appropriate decision on the medics," the spokesman said.
A source close to the deal said: "All the families have received checks for the money. But the families see the checks not the real money. For them, they will be sure of being paid only when they bring checks to the bank and cash them."
The medical workers -- five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor -- were sentenced to death in December after being convicted of intentionally starting an HIV (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/hiv_and_aids) epidemic at a children's hospital in the city of Benghazi.
Libya (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/libya)'s Supreme Court last week upheld the death sentences, placing the medics' fate in the hands of the High Judicial Council, which is controlled by the government and has the power to commute sentences or issue pardons.
The council said it would rule on the fate of the medics only if the children's families accepted the deal.
Another source close to the negotiations process said earlier: "They are in the latest stage to complete details of implementing the deal. That stage will be reached in the next few hours, perhaps at about 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) when an announcement would be made ... that they have a deal."
Under the agreement, the families of at least 426 children infected with the virus that causes AIDS will receive more than $400 million, the source told Reuters.
"The families would make a statement today after the completion of the deal to authorize the High Judicial Council to take the appropriate decision," said the source, who did not want to be named because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
Othman Bizanti, a leading lawyer for the nurses, said he had "great hope" the council would decide to free the medics.
In jail since 1999, the six medics say they are innocent and that they were tortured to confess. Foreign HIV experts say the infections started before the workers arrived at the hospital and are more likely a result of poor hygiene.
Behind-the-scenes talks between the EU, which Bulgaria joined in January, and families of the children have been taking place for weeks and both sides have suggested a deal was close.
Bulgaria and its allies in the EU and the United States say Libya is using the medics as scapegoats to deflect criticism from its dilapidated health care sector.
They have also suggested that not freeing the nurses would carry a diplomatic cost for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/moammar_gadhafi), who after scrapping a prohibited weapons program in 2003 is trying to emerge from more than three decades of diplomatic isolation.