Libya, Bulgaria, a Palestinian Doctor and 4.4 billion Euros
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya abruptly adjourned on Thursday the retrial of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of deliberately infecting hundreds of children at a Libyan hospital with the virus that causes AIDS.
"The retrial case was postponed and will resume on June 13, with the defendants remaining in detention," judge Mahmoud Chaouissa said.
Lawyers for the six medics, who have been in jail since 1999, had asked the court to release them on bail but the judge dismissed the demand.
None of those involved in the long proceedings seemed discouraged by the delay.
"It is a good start and the postponement underlined the court's eagerness to better check the facts and the evidence of the case," the medics' lead lawyer, Othman Bizanti, told Reuters.
Idriss Lagha, a spokesman for the families of the infected children said: "The start of the retrial is good and the postponement is a normal court decision."
Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it hoped hearings would be scheduled without long adjournments.
"We expect the new panel of the court in Tripoli to take into account the serious violations already made in procedure as well as the explicit evidence of the medics' innocence presented by the defence," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Dimitar Tsanchev.
The medics first stood trial in 2004 on charges they infected 426 Libyan children with the HIV virus when they worked in a Benghazi hospital. Around 50 of the children have died and the case has fuelled outrage among the families of the victims.
The five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death in May 2004.
Bulgaria and its allies, the United States and the European Union, insist the nurses are innocent, citing evidence they were tortured to confess and testimony by world AIDS experts that the spread of AIDS started before they began work at the hospital.
Libya's supreme court overturned death sentences for the six medics in December after an appeal by the defence on both substance and procedure, and ordered a retrial at a court in Tripoli chaired by Mahmoud Ghouissa.
Going into the start of their retrial on Thursday, the defendants seemed more relaxed than at previous hearings.
But in court doctor Ashraf Alhajouj complained of what he called official bias against him.
"The authorities are treating better the nurses than me. They have access to international phone to contact families, not me. They are allowed to be visited by their families, not me," the Palestinian doctor told the court.
Alhajouj has family in Libya, where his father is a university teacher and his sister a lawyer, but other relatives live abroad. The judge promised to look into his complaint.
Tripoli has suggested the nurses could go free if money were provided to cover financial compensation for the families of the victims and medical treatment for the children.
The victims' families have demanded 4.4 billion euro (3 billion pounds) from a group of international donors trying to settle the dispute, although Bulgaria itself has refused to pay any compensation, saying it would be a recognition of guilt.
But the United States, EU, Libya and Bulgaria have agreed to back the establishment of an aid fund, and are seeking ways to help the victims and their families.
The convictions have become a major sticking point to Libya's efforts to emerge from decades of diplomatic isolation.
Libya protested to Bulgaria on May 3 over a newspaper's cartoons of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in the run-up to the retrial. One of the cartoons in the daily newspaper Novinar depicted Gaddafi with a devil's trident standing round a cauldron where five medical caps were floating.
The Libyan embassy in Sofia expressed "deep indignation and disappointment" at the cartoons, Bulgarian radio has said.
(Additional reporting by Michael Winfrey in Sofia)