By Mena Abedi

As the health officials who were convicted for allegedly infecting over 400 children with HIV at Al-Fateh Children’s Hospital in Benghazi, Libya, await their sentencing, a Facebook group has been created to raise awareness among the online community in hopes of helping current efforts to free the prisoners by raising awareness.

The group “Help Free the Bulgarian Nurses in Libya,” created by Dimitar Tashev, who is currently living in Washington, D.C., has been gaining a following since its creation in October of last year, attracting nearly 2,500 members and running a long list of websites and news feeds.

“We’re creating a dialogue,” Tashev said in a phone interview. “We recently had a guy from Libya give his perspective on the [message] wall.” The group is attracting many members who want to stay informed, including many Bulgarians living the U.S., such as UCSC student Svetoslav Goranov.

On Dec. 19, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death by firing squad after their first appeal failed. After being detained for over eight years, Libyan courts recently announced that the medics would not face the death penalty.

Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya’s head of state, has vehemently claimed that the infections were part of a conspiracy against his country by the CIA and Mossad, the Israeli secret service, although there is no evidence to validate these claims.

The Libyan Consulate declined to comment on these issues.

Boris Yovchev, recent alumnus of Marian College in Wisconsin and member of the group, credits the recent changes of the trial to support from the European Union and United States.

“Now that the EU and U.S. have stepped up and expressed their position, which is very similar to the one Bulgaria holds on the issue, al-Gaddafi is trying to trade for the nurses,” Yovchev said. “[al-Gaddafi] is presenting a case in front of his nation where he…will keep a straight face in front of his people, the nurses will be brought back home…the EU and the U.S. will be happy…but Bulgaria will have to pay millions of dollars [in reparations] for something that the nurses were still not proven guilty of.”

Apostol Dyankov, an Oberlin college student and member of the Facebook group, expressed his disappointment and disgust at Libya’s recent decision to offer to trade the nurses for a detained criminal in the UK, or release them for large sums of money.

“For us Bulgarians, it is immaterial whether the nurses would be executed or held for a life term in prison, so the decision not to execute them doesn’t do anything to alleviate our anger,” Dyankov said. “The nurses are hostages, not defendants, and we will only accept their unconditional liberation.”

Al-Gaddafi’s claim is just one of many problems surrounding the case, which was originally dismissed in 2002 for lack of evidence.

Two women confessed during their detainment, but later disclosed that they had been tortured and confessed under duress.

During the trial, the court refused to hear witness testimonies from various experts, including some of the researchers who discovered the AIDS virus. The researchers claimed that the HIV infections were a result of poor hygiene, bad medical practices and especially the reuse of syringes.

While the problem of reusing syringes and working in unsanitary conditions is common, Dr. Mary Zavanelli, a lecturer at UCSC who teaches the course “Biology of AIDS,” said it is difficult to trace the HIV virus to its origin, emphasizing the many complex factors involved in the process.

“There are anecdotal reports of hospitals (and blood testing labs) in the U.S. that have reused needles, so to expect it not to happen in a poorer country is not logical,” Zavanelli said via e-mail. “However, this is not proof that it does or did happen in this or any other case.”

To address the problematic details of the case, many efforts have been launched in order to save the nurses and doctor, including a petition started by Tashev that now has over 31,000 signatures, and mass protests like one on Feb. 9 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Another member of the group, Maya Draganova, works for a newspaper in Bulgaria that started the widely known “ne ste sami”, or “you are not alone”, campaign in solidarity.

“It’s all about money, power, and politics,” Yovchev said. “Us little people probably don’t even know everything that is taking place as far as negotiations.”