TRIPOLI, Libya – A judge Tuesday sped up the retrial of Bulgarian nurses charged with infecting children with the AIDS virus, ruling that the court would convene every week until a verdict was reached.
Presiding judge Mahmoud Hawisa said that from now on, there would be a session every Tuesday. He also rejected an application for the accused to be released on bail.
The ruling came in the retrial of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who are charged with infecting more than 400 children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, at a hospital in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
They were convicted and sentenced to death in 2004, but an international outcry followed as the trial was widely perceived as unfair. A French expert on AIDS had testified that HIV was rife in the hospital because of poor hygiene. Human rights groups accused the Libyan authorities of prosecuting the foreigners in a cover-up.
Defense lawyers told the court Tuesday that the incriminating testimony of Libyan medical experts was wrong and should be re-evaluated.
They also urged the court to review the "pressure" brought to bear on the accused after their arrest in 1999. Amnesty International has said the women reported being tortured with electric shocks and beaten until they confessed.
The defense had argued that the seven years the accused have spent in detention amounted to a punishment that would not be accepted in other countries. But the prosecution replied that if let go, the defendants might be harmed by the victims' relatives, and the judge ruled against their release.
Dozens of relatives of the 426 infected children — at least 50 of whom have died — demonstrated outside the trial on Tuesday, pelting the courthouse with stones. Police intervened to restore calm.
In Sofia, Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dimitar Tsantchev welcomed the move to expedite the proceedings, saying it would "lead to a speedy trial without further protraction."
One of the defense lawyers, Thahiba Mohammed Moussa, told the court she would no longer defend the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, and that she had joined the team of lawyers representing the victims' relatives.
Moussa did not explain her decision, but she told The Associated Press later that it was based on "personal convictions."
The trial has evolved into a diplomatic showdown, with the U.S. and European Union indicating that future relations with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi depended on the verdict.
A retrial was ordered in December after U.S., European and Libyan negotiators agreed to set up a fund to help the infected children's families.
Bulgaria has rejected the idea of paying compensation to the families, or writing off some of Libya's debt, saying such a move would be seen as an admission of the nurses' guilt.