by Albena Shkodrova; photography by BTA

The Bulgarian nurses in Libya may be hostages of a retaliation campaign

bulgarian nurses libya.jpg

On New Year's Eve, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians wore small paper national flags pinned to their coats. These were not in celebration of the country's historic accession to the EU, but an expression of solidarity with five Bulgarians sentenced to death by a Libyan court.

"You are not alone," read the message on the ribbons. And it was more or less true. A kind of national mourning has been in place in Bulgaria for almost eight years now concerning the fates of the five Bulgarian nurses in Libya who recently received death sentences for a second time.

The depressing saga began on 10 February 1999, when, in a night raid, armed Libyan police arrested 19 Bulgarian medical workers in their flats in Benghazi. Those detained were ordinary people, just some of the scores of Bulgarians who have been working throughout the Arab world since the time of Socialist "friendship" ties.

Many of the detainees were promptly released. But six were accused of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with HIV at the Benghazi hospital where they worked.

The trial against Dr Zdravko Georgiev and nurses Christiana Vulcheva, Nasya Nenova, Snezhana Dimitrova, Valentina Siropulo and Valya Chervenyashka started a year later, in February 2000. They were accused of causing an AIDS epidemic by injecting 426 children with the HIV virus, and of committing acts leading to the "uncontrolled murder of people, aimed at threatening Libya's national security." For both crimes punishment under Libyan law is the death penalty.

The Bulgarian nurses were also charged with conducting illegal sexual relationships, home production of alcohol, public use of liquor and illegal transactions with foreign currency.

MEPs Geoffrey van Orden and Catherine Guy-Quint initiated a petition in defence of the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor

MEPs Geoffrey van Orden and Catherine Guy-Quint initiated a petition in defence of the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor

Bulgaria was somewhat bewildered by this turn of events and had difficulty in fathoming the situation. Surely it was nothing more than an insignificant misunderstanding that would be resolved soon? The charges of a plot against the Libyan state appeared ludicrous to many. It took months for international experts to allegedly confirm in scientific reports what the Bulgarian public had believed from the start, that the defendants had not caused the AIDS epidemic in Benghazi.

Libya did not appear to have any political motive to want to attack Bulgaria. The special relationship between the two countries, inherited from Cold War times, had not been maintained after the Iron Curtain collapsed, but neither had Bulgaria done anything to harm its relations with any of the Arab countries, including Libya. Indeed, many companies, now private, continued to cooperate in traditional areas, mostly sending engineers and medical workers as well as technical equipment. And many Bulgarian specialists preferred going to work in Libya and getting paid in US dollars to toiling for a pittance in Bulgaria of the 1990s.

At that time it was inconceivable to most Bulgarians that several of their fellow citizens could be part of Al-Qadhafi 's global game. Initially, Ivan Kostov's government did not react to the news of the nurses' arrest. The prime minister eventually responded calmly, even asking publicly "What if they are guilty?". The government's restrained reaction later received fierce criticism. Anonymous diplomats claimed in the press that Prime Minister Ivan Kostov and President Petar Stoyanov had missed their chance to quickly resolve the matter, saying that the two statesmen had been advised by the Bulgarian Foreign ministry to visit Al-Qadhafi to find a solution, but had stalled for too long and subsequently abandoned the idea.

It is possible that such a visit could have resolved the problem, but it could equally have served to play into Al-Qadhafi 's hands by turning the trial into an international political issue. As it was, five women and one man remained charged with plotting against the Libyan state.

Some experts were quick to suggest that the colonel was desperate to find an exit strategy for the growing national problem of AIDS. This was damaging to the desired image of Libya as a country with an "excellent" health system and could not be kept low profile after the Benghazi epidemic.

In a rare show of unity, the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians indicate their support for the nurses - a group of Roma carry placards in front of the Libyan embassy in Sofia

In a rare show of unity, the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians indicate their support for the nurses - a group of Roma carry placards in front of the Libyan embassy in Sofia

Many months passed before the Bulgarian public began to realise that the trial might be a form of retaliation for Lockerbie.

The Bulgarian nurses were the perfect victims: they were from a foreign, non-Arab, non-Muslim country, too weak to react on its own, and strongly dependent on the Western world with which it was seeking stronger ties.

The defendants pleaded not guilty. In April 2000 they stated that they had been tortured into confessing to crimes which they had not committed. Nasya Nenova attempted suicide in her cell.

Meanwhile, the enraged and desperate families of the infected children took to the streets of Benghazi. They marched under banners bearing images of their children, with shouts of hatred for the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor, demanding capital punishment.

The trial continued in an endless sequence of small hopes and big disappointments.

Initially, it had been only a bilateral issue between Libya and Bulgaria. In November 2000 Swiss academic Luc Perren was the first to conclude in a scientific report that the epidemic in Benghazi had been the result of the general neglect of hygiene standards in the hospital in question. In September 2003 the French doctor Luc Montagnier, co-founder of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention and the first to discover HIV in the 1980s, testified that the epidemic had broken out a year before the Bulgarians arrived and was more o or less receding by the time of their arrival.

The trial attracted the attention of the international community in 2001. Since then, with Bulgaria's gradually increasing association with the Western world, interest from the EU and the United States has grown. From the beginning, both Bulgaria and the international community have treated the trial as a genuine legal procedure. They concentrated on building teams of lawyers. They worked on defence strategies.

They dug for additional evidence and worked hard to have it accepted for consideration in the Libyan court. At the same time, Bulgaria, the EU and the United States combined these legal efforts with political pressure.

Shop window in Sofia demanding freedom for the nurses

Shop window in Sofia demanding freedom for the nurses

Realising it lacked the strength to take a hostile stance, the Bulgarian government chose a friendly approach. At the end of 2001 it tried to establish closer contacts with the Al-Qadhafi family, namely the colonel's son Seif Al-Islam. He was invited to pay a visit to Sofia and exhibit his paintings which were en route between London and Washington at the time. Bulgarian authorities repeatedly expressed trust in the positive influence of his humanitarian organisation on the nurses' fate. Visits and letters were exchanged, filling the media with kind words of trust and hope.

Whether it was due to these tactics, increasing international pressure, a temporary change of mood, or another of Al-Qadhafi 's calculated moves, is difficult to determine, but some positive developments occurred at this point. The defendants were moved from Jdeida prison to a guarded house and there were rumours that the sentences would be revoked. Hopes were growing.

In February 2002 the People's Court, where national security cases are tried, said there was insufficient evidence that the defendants had acted against Libyan national security. One of the most serious accusations, plotting against the state, was dropped and the case was sent to the prosecution to be reconsidered.

Al-Qadhafi Jr repeatedly said that the Bulgarian defendants were not criminals. He stated that his foundation, named after his father, had investigated the case and reached the conclusion that the epidemic was caused by the general neglect of hygiene standards at the hospital. Luc Montagnier and Italian AIDS expert Vittorio Colizzi were allowed to confirm this in court.

However, on 6 May 2004, while hopes that the Bulgarians would be released were still growing, the Benghazi court sentenced Dr Zdravko Georgiev to four years in prison, time he had already served, and set him free. The five nurses received the death penalty.

What brought about this sudden change? Was it that the international community's growing concern brought within reach a sought after opportunity for Al-Qadhafi to use this case as revenge for Lockerbie?

Darik Radio, bTV and Standart daily give a huge You-Are-Not-Alone ribbon to Speaker of Parliament Georgi Pirinski

Darik Radio, bTV and Standart daily give a huge You-Are-Not-Alone ribbon to Speaker of Parliament Georgi Pirinski

By this stage the Western world was already deeply involved in the matter. Bulgaria was only 18 months away from becoming an EU member. The trial appeared to be blatantly violating international perceptions of justice. The EU, the United States and Bulgaria called the sentences "absurd". US President George W. Bush urged Libya to free the nurses.

At this point Libya renewed its claims for financial compensation, which Bulgaria had previously refused, fearing that it would be viewed as an admission of guilt. But with US and EU participation it sounded different, like support for people in trouble.

In 2005 it looked as though the opposing sides were coming close to a deal. In June, a Tripoli court acquitted nine Libyan police officers and a doctor of torturing the nurses. By the end of the same year, a fund had been set up to accumulate money from Western democracies to assist Libyan children and their families affected by the epidemic. Just days later, Libya's Supreme Court declared the sentences against the nurses void and sent the case back to a lower court.

The retrial took place in the second half of 2006. Libya stated clearly its expectations for compensation. In January 2006 the families of the infected children demanded $5.5 billion. In September this amount was moderated by their advocates to $11.6 million - just a little more than what Libya had offered as compensation for the Lockerbie bombing.

For 426 children, as per the initial indictment, it totalled $4.9 billion. But another huge blow was delivered on 19 December 2006 when the Benghazi court only dropped some of the minor charges against the nurses - and reinstated the death penalties. Soon afterwards, in the first days of January, Libya expressed concern that the fund set up to assist the epidemic victims was empty - a worry which may have been the key to the court decision.

While the EU countries rushed to assure Al-Qadhafi that the fund was accumulating, public discontent was growing. Some were annoyed by the mass frenzy stirred up by the case and by its frequent abuse for local political and media purposes. Others asked how long the Western democracies would continue to accept without question the authority of the Libyan court. It seems that at present neither Bulgaria, the EU nor the United States feel ready to face the consequences of doing otherwise.

Retaliation for Lockerbie?

In April 2001, during the African Conference on AIDS, Libyan leader Muamar Al-Qadhafi swears he will turn the trial against Bulgarian nurses into a world one, like the Lockerbie bombing trial which was one of the biggest scars on Libya's reputation in the 20th century.

Muammar Gaddafi

The trial was conducted after a PanAm aircraft was blown up above the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988, killing 270 people, most of whom were US citizens.

After a three-year investigation in 1991, a Libyan intelligence officer and a station manager for Libyan airlines in Malta were charged.

The suspects were not handed over until 1999, after the UN imposed sanctions on Libya and lengthy negotiations with Al-Qadhafi. One of the detainees - Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, was found guilty and sentenced by a Scottish court to 27 years in prison on 31 January 2001.

Eccentric or Lunatic?

"Who is Muamar Al-Qadhafi?" is a question to which politicians prefer not to spell out the answer. The behaviour he presents to the world at large is generally seen to verge between the eccentric and the lunatic.

In his Green Book, published in 1984, he shares his views on modern liberal democracies in a "Third World-Theory". Some of its key ideas include that: "Parliament is a delusive representation of the people, and the parliamentarian system, an illusionary solution to the democracy's problems... The referendum is a falsification of democracy. Those who say 'yes', and those who say 'no' do not in fact express their will... [Referendum] is the fiercest and the most merciless form of dictatorship." Rule of law is not mentioned as an element of Al-Qadhafi's ideal democracy theory.

Another, fresher, memory of Al-Qadhafi's unconventional political style was his 2004 visit to the EU headquarters, when the Libyan colonel chose to camp on a grass square in Brussels instead of renting a hotel room.

But, to quote Al-Qadhafi himself, "Every man, as a human being, is free to express himself, and even in cases when one is mentally confused, he has the right to express his madness."

Death Penalties in Libya

According to its 1973 Criminal Code, Libya allows the death penalty for "offences against the principles of the Revolution," such as high treason, attempt to forcibly change the form of government and premeditated murder. After the attempted coup in 1975, the Libyan General People's Congress amended the Criminal Code, to include conspiracy with foreigners against the state, divulgence of military or state secrets, and possession of devices to engage in espionage.

Traditional Sharia punishments such as the amputation of limbs and flogging are viewed as inhumane in Libya. Executions are performed by firing squad.


February 1999

19 Bulgarian medics are detained as part of an investigation into an HIV/AIDS infection in a Benghazi children's hospital.

February 2000

Six Bulgarians and one Palestinian go on trial at Tripoli People's Court.

17 February 2002

The People's Court refers trial to lower court, citing insufficient evidence that defendants acted against Libyan security.

3 September 2003

French doctor Luc Montagnier, who first detected the HIV virus, testifies the epidemic broke out a year before the Bulgarians' arrival.

6 May 2004

Libyan court sentences five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to death for deliberately infecting 426 children with the HIV virus. Dr Zdravko Georgiev is acquitted.

7 June 2005

A Tripoli court acquits nine Libyan police officers and a doctor of torturing the nurses.

17 October 2005

US President George W. Bush urges Libya to free the medics.

23 December 2005

Bulgaria, Libya, the EU and the United States agree to set up fund to help the infected Libyan children and their families.

25 December 2005

Libya's Supreme Court scraps death sentences against the nurses and the Palestinian doctor, sends the case back to a lower court for retrial.

19 December 2006

The death sentences reinstated.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Тhe overwhelming majority of Bulgarians who will go to the polls in June to elect their next National Assembly will do so with one all-pervasive sentiment. Disgust.
In the 1990s and early 2000s Bulgaria, a former East bloc country, was an enthusiastic applicant to join both NATO and the EU. Twenty years later the initial enthusiasm has waned.

Тo understand the current predicament of the Changes Continued political party, one of whose leaders, Kiril Petkov, was prime minister in 2021-2022, one needs to consider the characteristically complicated background.

In spite of the protestations of the ruling "fixture" between PP-DB (Changes Continued of Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev and Democratic Bulgaria of Gen Atanas Atanasov and Hristo Ivanov) and Boyko Borisov's GERB about the "top national pri

While Bulgarians left, right and centre are quibbling over the fate of a pile of stones crowned by some sculpted Red Army soldiers in central Sofia, the state prosecution service quietly terminated a case started by Vasil Bozhkov, one of this country's weal

Polling agencies got it wrong again

Colourful and gilt-domed, looking like a toy, the St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker church in central Sofia is known to Bulgarians simply as the Russian Church.

Notwithstanding the amendments to the Constitution proposed by Nikolay Denkov's "fixture" (the word he uses to describe the government), several bits of legislation put forward by the rulers and quickly voted into law have raised eyebrows and prompted a sig

А crudely-cut cartoon circulating on social media shows Former Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, who is Jewish, being held by two Nazi-clad soldiers. The text (in Bulgarian) reads: "If you don't want Russian gas, we will give you some of ours."

In 2013, when the Inland Revenue agency started a probe into alleged wrongdoing by then President Rosen Plevneliev, he famously excused himself: I am not a Martian. Plevneliev had been a minister for Boyko Borisov.

Three years after the event, the massive street protests that blocked the traffic in Central Sofia in the course of months, in 2020, seem to have achieved their original aims.
If anyone believed that the CC-DB, or Changes Continued-Democratic Bulgaria alliance, who lost the April election and are now the second largest party in the Bulgarian National Assembly, were serious in their declared and oft-repeated pledges they wanted to