Tears and jubilation greeted six medics freed by Libya on Tuesday after 8 -1/2 years languishing in prison over widely rejected accusations they deliberately infected children with HIV.
Behind the dramatic release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were secretive negotiations, and questions remain about what concessions were made to Moammar Gadhafi's regime. Reports emerged from Tripoli that a charity for the infected children and their families saw its funds jump 100-fold to $400-million through European contributions.
Libya had accused the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS; 50 of the children died. The medics, jailed since 1999 with most of those years passed under a death sentence, deny knowingly infecting the children and say their confessions were extracted under torture.
A World Health Organization team that investigated the epidemic concluded that infection had been spread by poor sanitary conditions at the hospital and the reuse of syringes.
To deflect blame and to mollify outraged parents, the Libyan government concocted an elaborate conspiracy theory, accusing the Bulgarians of acting secretly at the behest of the CIA and Israel.
Back at home
The six medics were whisked from Tripoli to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, aboard France's presidential jet, their release secured during a three-day trip to Libya by French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and the European Union's commissioner for foreign affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
The medics were welcomed on the tarmac by relatives who hugged them, one lifting the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, off the ground. Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov immediately pardoned them, including Hazouz, who was granted citizenship last month.
"I waited so long for this moment," said nurse Snezhana Dimitrova before falling in the arms of her loved ones.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said neither his country nor the EU paid money for the release. But within hours, the EU - which Bulgaria joined in January - was offering Libya improved economic and political ties potentially worth billions of dollars.
Qatar also mediated in the negotiations, Sarkozy said, but few details emerged of its role.
Libyan officials said European countries have promised millions of dollars to the fund created to compensate families of infected children.
"There was only $4-million in the fund, but after negotiations with Ferrero-Waldner, the amount ... became $400-million, extended by the EU," said Saleh Abdul-Salam, director of the Gadhafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, which manages the fund.
Libya's decision to allow the six to return to Bulgaria came after months of pressure from the United States and the EU, which made clear to Gadhafi that a resolution was key to normalizing relations.
Time behind bars
While politicians and diplomats negotiated behind the scenes, the medics said they endured torture and rape - abuses under which they made admissions. Their death sentence was commuted to life in prison only a week ago.
One of the nurses, 41-year-old Nasya Nenova, said she tried to commit suicide out of fear of further torture.
Another, Kristiana Valcheva, has said she "was tortured with electric shocks, beaten and submitted to every kind of torture known since the Middle Ages."
Information from the Chicago Tribune was used in this report.