Libya's Gaddafi suggests spy link in HIV case

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trial in LibyaLibyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Friday defended a court's decision to sentence five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death for infecting more than 400 children with HIV, but said mystery surrounded the case.

"It is unimportant that the medics are sentenced to death or not -- if they committed a crime and are sentenced to death, that is the court's decision," Gaddafi told a gathering of officials, religious leaders and reporters in Tripoli.

"The important thing is why the medical team injected the children with AIDS. Who ordered you -- was it Libyan intelligence, American intelligence, Israeli intelligence or Bulgarian intelligence? This is what we have to find out."

The medics were sentenced last week for deliberately infecting the children with the virus that causes AIDS at a Benghazi hospital in the late 1990s. More than 50 of the children have since died.

Condemnation poured in from Western governments and rights groups, with Bulgaria, the EU which it joins next month and Amnesty International among the swiftest critics. Washington said it was disappointed.

Some Western scientists say negligence and poor hospital hygiene are the real culprits and the six are scapegoats, but in Libya the verdict came as a welcome act of defiance of the West.

On Thursday, Libya's Foreign Ministry said western criticism of the death sentences showed a lack of respect for Libya.

It defended the ruling and said outside pressure to overturn the sentences created a dangerous precedent in which Libyans are considered "sub-human" and treated differently to Bulgarians.

Gaddafi contrasted the international outcry over the HIV case with that of Libyan Abdel Basset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi, who was found guilty in 2001 of the Pan Am plane bombing over Scotland and handed a mandatory life prison sentence.

Tripoli has agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of the crash victims and taken responsibility for the bombing.

"Organisations like the Arab League, the non-aligned movement and the Islamic Conference said al-Megrahi was a political prisoner and international observers said elements of foreign intelligence were present at the trial," Gaddafi said. "Nobody asked for his release."

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited.