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Libya's High Judicial Council has commuted the death sentence to life in prison for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted in 2004 of infecting children with HIV at the al-Fateh Hospital in the city of Benghazi, Libya.

The council made their announcement yesterday (17 July), stating, "The High Judicial Council decided to commute the death sentences against the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to life-imprisonment terms."

The 2004 death sentence had been upheld last week by Libya's Supreme Court.

The council took their decision after an agreement was negotiated between Libya's Qaddafi Foundation and more than 400 families of the infected children. Each family will get around US$1 million. 

The source of the money has not been announced, but there are speculations that it will come from various sources including the EU, the Libyan government and an international fund called the Benghazi Fund.

Libya's foreign minister has said the government is willing to consider the medics' transfer to Bulgaria. Talks on the transfer are expected to start today.

Othman Bizanti, lead lawyer of the nurses and doctor, said he has "high hopes" they would be set free soon.

Idriss Lagha, spokesperson for the families, said in a press release, "My personal interpretation is that their move is the equivalent of a pardon because the compensation money is the equivalent in Islam to 'blood money', which entails pardon."

Bulgaria refuses to acknowledge the money as compensation because that would be equivalent to an admission that the nurses are guilty.

The Qaddafi foundation also refused to comment on its role in the negotiations. However, Richard Roberts, a Nobel laureate who has been leading the efforts of the scientific community to free the healthcare workers, said the money is not compensation.

"I'm told by the Qaddafi Foundation that [the deal] did not involve paying money to the families, but securing good healthcare for the children and helping the Libyan government improve their hospital systems," he told SciDev.Net.

Christiane Hohmann, spokeswoman for EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said, "Our contribution will be in kind, i.e. guarantees for the medium- and long-term medical and psychological treatment of the children and their families, and support for the Benghazi hospital."

Western scientists who have studied the case in detail say the virus was present in the hospital prior to the healthcare workers arriving in the hospital. Others have claimed that the infections were deliberate.

According to Roberts, many Libyans do not believe the prosecutors' story anymore. "I have spoken to some people [in Libya] and the consensus is it was just an accident, even among the families. Only one or two families genuinely believe the conspiracy theory."

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