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Bulgaria Celebrates Nurses' Release from Libya

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's Ivan Watson reports.

IVAN WATSON: After eight and a half years in a Libyan prison and a death sentence handed down by a Libyan court, the homecoming was an emotional one. The nurses cried and embraced relatives and loved ones who waited on the tarmac.

SNEZHANA DIMITROVA: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Another nurse named Valentina Siropulo described the traumatic ordeal.

VALENTINA SIROPULO: (Through translator) The only thing that got me through all these years, through the torture, through the uncertainty, through the trial, the only thing was the knowledge that in my conscience and in my soul I was innocent.

WATSON: International AIDS experts were eventually brought in to examine the evidence against the medics. Susannah Sirkin of the organization Physicians for Human Rights says the Libyan case had no scientific evidence.

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: To the contrary, other international experts have traced the cause of the infection arriving at the hospital a full year before the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian medic had arrived, and have demonstrated scientifically that this particular strain of the HIV virus was already widely spreading across the hospital before these medics arrived.

WATSON: The nurses say they were awoken before dawn on Tuesday and taken to a French government plane, where they were met by a senior European diplomat and the French first lady, Cecilia Sarkozy. Moments after they landed in Bulgaria, Bulgaria's president formally pardoned the six medics.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

WATSON: In the Bulgarian capital today, residents said they were still thrilled by the news.

TRYZUB BONEV: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Sergey Stanishev, the prime minister of Bulgaria, said his small country's recent admission to the European Union had added crucial diplomatic pressure to resolving the dispute.

SERGEY STANISHEV: (Through translator) The return of these nurses is something like a miracle. It shows very clearly to Bulgarians what it means to be a member of the European Union.

WATSON: But critics like Susannah Sirkin of Physicians Without Borders accused the EU of giving in to what she calls state-sponsored hostage-taking by Libya.

SIRKIN: We believe that the nurses and doctor have been, first of all, scapegoated for a crime they did not commit and essentially held hostage for what amounts to ransom money.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Sofia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: July 29, 2007 at 10:26 AM EDT
An earlier version of the audio for this story misidentified Physicians for Human Rights as Physicians Without Borders. The error has been corrected in this version.
Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.

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