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SOFIA, Bulgaria — In a case that has troubled human rights activists and the international medical community, six Bulgarians and a Palestinian are facing the death penalty in Libya for allegedly infecting 393 children with the virus that causes AIDS in what Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi claims was a plot orchestrated by the CIA or Israeli intelligence.

A three-day trial, in which the defendants were not allowed to call witnesses or present expert testimony, ended June 18 in Tripoli, Libya, and a verdict is scheduled to be handed down Sept. 22. The seven defendants — a Bulgarian doctor, a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses — are accused of injecting children with contaminated blood in the pediatric department of the Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in an alleged conspiracy to destabilize the Libyan state.

“(The defendants) have sold themselves to the Devil,” the lead prosecutor told the court, according to news services. “To these (intelligence) services, child-killing is nothing new. In this way, they want to prevent Libya from playing an important role in the Arab world and to disturb calm in the country. The killing of children by that virus is a means by which those secret services achieve their ends.”

The seven health workers, supported by European AIDS experts, said HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was most likely transmitted through poor medical practices at the hospital, including the routine reuse of unsterilized syringes.

“There is no doubt that the case of the Libyan government doesn’t stand,” said Luc Perrin, a physician at Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland who examined 37 of the children and tested blood plasma from 122 others that was shipped to him.

According to Perrin, who said in an interview that he forwarded his finding to the Libyan government and the prosecutor, the most likely scenario is that one child was infected with HIV through a contaminated injection or some other form of transmission, and that led to the “explosive spread” of HIV through reused syringes.

Perrin determined that all of the infected patients had received injections while in the hospital in Benghazi, which is east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean Sea. According to the World Health Organization, 80,000 to 160,000 HIV infections occur annually through unsafe injections, mostly in the Third World.

The World Health Organization undertook two missions to Libya in 1998 and 1999 and recommended that universal safety procedures be followed in hospitals there, according to WHO spokeswoman Melinda Henry. Members of the missions felt that further study was necessary to identify the source of the HIV infections, Henry said, but they were not invited back.

Nine Libyans from Al-Fateh Hospital face lesser charges in the case, including negligence, and are out on bail. All of the non-Libyan defendants have been imprisoned since their arrest in February 1999, and their ability to consult with their lawyers and see their families has been severely curtailed, Bulgarian officials said.

“Who charged them with this odious task?” Gaddafi asked at an AIDS conference in Nigeria in April. “Some said it was the CIA. Others said it was Mossad (the Israeli intelligence service). They carried out an experiment on these children.”

Gaddafi said the seven non-Libyan defendants would have “an international trial, like the Lockerbie trial,” but Bulgarian officials said the promise proved empty because their citizens enjoyed none of the due process accorded two Libyans accused of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 and tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands.

Two of the accused nurses told the court they were forced to confess to an international conspiracy under torture. One, Kristiyana Vulchev, said she was subjected to electric shocks and endured “every kind of torture known since the Middle Ages.”

The two nurses retracted their confessions in open court, and one of their lawyers demanded an explanation for one defendant’s broken ribs and the scars on the buttocks of another.

“Confessions made under duress show that the trial is unjust and unfair,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Marin Raikov. “Bulgaria will not accept a political lynch law with the six medics.”

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Other officials here say the Bulgarians are being railroaded to deflect domestic criticism from the Libyan regime, particularly in Benghazi, a stronghold of dissent.

“For the regime there to be accountable for its own mistakes is practically impossible, and so it is eagerly blaming foreigners,” said Anton Girginov, a member of a Bulgarian government commission monitoring the trial. “They have used torture instead of expert opinion and they have done everything to avoid getting at the truth.”

Libya’s medical system has been failing under the weight of international sanctions, and Bulgarian officials said syringes were reused and not sterilized as a cost-saving measure.

After the discovery of the AIDS outbreak in 1998, a number of Bulgarians were questioned. None were arrested until February 1999, when 23 people were taken into custody; all but seven were released. Two of the six Bulgarian defendants didn’t even work at the hospital. But they allegedly masterminded the plot with foreign intelligence services. Another defendant, a nurse, had not yet moved to Libya when the first infection was discovered in May 1998.

The Bulgarians’ Libyan lawyer wondered in court why the defendants didn’t flee Libya in the six months between the commission of the crime and their arrest. “It is only logical,” said the lawyer, Othmane Bizanthi, “that when a person commits a crime he should not wait to be caught.”

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