It began in the summer of 1998, when several infants died and no one immediately knew why.
Three years later, six Bulgarians and a Palestinian - all doctors and nurses - face the death penalty if they are convicted of killing 393 children by injecting them with blood contaminated with the AIDS virus. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has said that the CIA or the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, is behind the plot.
A panel of five state judges will hand down its verdict Saturday. The defendants have pleaded not guilty and some have complained their interrogators extracted confessions using torture, including electric shocks and beating.
The case has raised concern among human rights groups and some in the medical community, who have complained about reports that HIV-contaminated plasma was discovered at a defendant's apartment while she was in police custody and the refusal of the court to allow expert opinion from Switzerland and France.
Amnesty International has said "there have been serious irregularities in ... pretrial proceedings."
Bulgaria has accused Libya of holding a political trial against its nationals and has repeatedly called for an independent team of international experts to study the case and testify.
Luc Perrin, head of virology at Geneva University Hospital, said the contamination was caused by "bad medical practices."
Perrin, who examined 40 children, said at least 50 percent of the children were also infected with hepatitis C, which suggests that the hospital had reused needles. The court has refused to allow Perrin to testify.
In light of a lack of witnesses and proper court procedures, diplomats suggested Libya could have ulterior motives in bringing the case to court. It could be trying to divert attention from horrendous medical conditions at some of its state-run hospitals, where disposable instruments are repeatedly used and basic rules of hygiene are not observed, they said. Libya could also be trying to make Bulgaria forgive it its debts, estimated at $300 million.
The case of the infected children was first brought to light in 1998 by the Libyan magazine La, which is in the coastal city of Benghazi, where the Al-Fateh children's hospital is located.
The magazine included the story of twin girls, who were born in Benghazi on Aug. 2, 1998. A month later, one of the babies fell seriously ill and her father took her to Al-Fateh hospital, where she got a blood test and a checkup. Three months later, a social worker visited the girls' home and insisted on conducting new tests, saying the baby might have been infected with viral hepatitis. The baby's twin and mother were also tested. The results showed that the baby who had been hospitalized was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Several men told the magazine the hospital did not tell them their children were infected. The government closed down La a few weeks after its reports were published.
In November 1998, a grou of desperate fathers interrupted a medical conference Gadhafi was attending in Benghazi and appealed to him for help.
At an AIDS conference in Nigeria in April, Gadhafi called the infections in his country "an odious crime."
"Who charged (the medics) with this task? Some said it was the CIA. Others said it was Mossad," he said.
A few weeks later, the government detained scores of hospital staff before narrowing its list to the Bulgarians and the Palestinian. They have been held since February 1999.
Besides the murder and conspiracy counts, the Bulgarians are charged with drinking in public - alcohol is banned in Libya and engaging in extramarital sex. Nine Libyans charged in the same case are out on bail.
Othman el-Bezanti, the lawyer defending the Bulgarians, said that if they are found guilty, they have two stages of appeal.
By Donna Abu-Nasr
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