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Libya HIV trial conclusion delayed

November 1, 2006 By Declan Butler This article courtesy of Nature News.

Prosecution asks for extra session in death-penalty trial.

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The death-penalty trial of six foreign medical workers in Libya, which was scheduled to end yesterday, 31 October, has been extended until this weekend at the earliest.

The medics are accused of deliberately injecting 426 children with HIV at the Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in 1998. Yesterday's hearing the eleventh of the trial that began 11 May was the first time that the defence had argued its case.

The sitting was scheduled to be the last day of the trial, but the prosecution argued that they needed a further extraordinary court sitting to respond to the defence arguments. This has been granted for 4 November.

The health workers were condemned to death by the same court, the Benghazi Criminal Court, in May 2004. But that verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court on 25 December 2005, which ordered the current retrial.

The retrial has declined to hear testimony from international scientific experts. But the defence lawyers yesterday reminded the court that these experts have argued both that the evidence points to poor hygiene at the hospital as having been the cause of the infection, and that the outbreak had begun at the hospital before the medics arrived in 1998. Outside experts consulted by Nature have said that a scientific report used in the case presents no grounds for suspicion of deliberate infection (see ' A shocking lack of evidence').

The defence reiterated their claim that confessions had been extracted under duress and torture. They also charged that documents presented as evidence by the prosecution had been faked.

Further twists notwithstanding, this Saturday's sitting should be the last. A verdict may be pronounced as early as 4 November, but any sentencing is not expected until several weeks after that. If the health workers are condemned, the defence intends to immediately appeal the decision before the Supreme Court. This would be the medics' last recourse.

Meanwhile, international pressure for independent scientific evidence to be considered in the trial continues to mount. A letter published last week in Science by Bob Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, Maryland, and 43 other scientists called for release of the six.

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