Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian-born doctor, convicted of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV, and on death row for some time, have been set free following a deal between Libya and the European Union (EU).
The six have since arrived in Bulgaria where they were pardoned by President Georgi Parvanov.
AdvertisementThe Palestinian doctor was granted Bulgarian citizenship last month to allow him to benefit from any transfer deal.
The release follows years of diplomacy by EU officials and two trips to Libya by the new French president's wife, CÚcilia Sarkozy.
The medics, who have been behind bars since 1999, were convicted of deliberately injecting 438 children in a Benghazi hospital with HIV-tainted blood, but yet othrers said the number of victims had risen to about 460 with several mothers now infected. Fifty-six children have since died.
But nurses Snezhana Dimitrova, Nasya Nenova, Valya Cherveniashka, Valentina Siropulo and Kristiana Valcheva and doctor Ashraf Juma Hajuj have always pleaded their innocence.
They say confessions were extracted under torture and foreign experts have blamed poor hygiene at the hospital for the AIDS outbreak in Libya's second city of Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast.
The European Commission had mounted sustained efforts to secure the release of the six, making numerous trips to Libya, meeting the prisoners and working to improve the conditions for hundreds of children with HIV/Aids.
According to EU officials the key to the agreement has been a memorandum signed in Tripoli by EU's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldne which would lead to the full normalisation of EU relations with Libya.
it includes a pledge to open the European market to Libyan farm and fishery produce, technical assistance for the restoration of archaeological monuments and EU grants for Libyan students.
It also included measures to improve the care of children with HIV/Aids in Libya, the French presidential palace said.
Last week, the six had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Libya's top legal body.
The High Judicial Council ruling came after the families of the 438 children agreed to a compensation deal reportedly worth one million dollars per child.
Bulgaria had officially asked Libya to repatriate the medics so they could serve out their sentences in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria's President Georgi Parvanov said he was satisfied with the release of the medics.
"The dramatic case with the sentenced innocent Bulgarian citizens is at its end. We are still sympathetic with the other tragedy - the one of the infected Libyan children and their families," he said.