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Today the Libyan Supreme Court in Tripoli sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death for willingly infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV at the al-Fateh Hospital in the coastal city of Benghazi in 1998.

"They caused the spread of the disease that caused the death of more than one person," said Judge Mahmoud Haouissa, announcing the verdict.

Othman Bizanti, the health workers' defence lawyer, said that an appeal would be filed before Libya's supreme court within the legal time limit of 60 days.

The nurses and doctor have been in detention since 1999 and were sentenced to death in May 2004, but the Libyan Supreme Court quashed the ruling last December after protests over the trial's fairness, ordering the case be returned to a lower court.

Today (19 December) the court also ordered the Libyan state to pay the families between US$250,000 and US$900,000 for each victim.

The sentence follows an offer by Libya, which the Bulgarian government rejected, to release the prisoners in return for US$15 million compensation for each of the victims' families. Fifty-two of the 426 children have now died of HIV/AIDS.

Western human rights watchdogs and medical experts have backed the medics' case, calling for their release.

Last month 114 Nobel Laureates wrote an open letter to Libya's leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, asking that defence lawyers be given the right to examine witnesses on the health workers' behalf, and that the court hears evidence from experts in HIV/AIDS research (see: 'A plea for justice: Nobel Laureates write to Gaddafi').

Two leading HIV/AIDS researchers — Luc Montagnier from France and Vittorio Colizzi from Italy — testified on behalf of the medics at their first trial, but their report was dismissed by the judge.

Their research indicated that the HIV virus was present in the Benghazi-based hospital before the nurses began working there in 1998. Instead they blamed poor hospital hygiene for the infections (see 'Scientists urged to support nurses facing execution').

European Union Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini expressed shock and disappointment at the latest trial's verdict. "I strongly hope that somehow the Libyan authorities will rethink this decision," he told Reuters news agency.

Mohammed El-Helbawi, an Egyptian lawyer, said the legal battle is still on. "The defence lawyers, under Libyan law, have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court for a second and last time," he told SciDev.Net.

He warned against giving the case political dimensions, and urged to treat it as a scientific issue.