by Oleg Ikonomov; photography by BTA

The state has spent about five million leva of taxpayers' money to free the condemned Bulgarian medical workers in Libya. That is not the final price

bulgarian nurces libya.jpg

The five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor, accused of deliberately infecting 400 Libyan children in Benghazi with the HIV virus, have now been behind bars for eight years. During that time the Bulgarian government has veered between vociferous international campaigns and quiet diplomacy to bring them home. But it was only last April that an MP dared to ask Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin the pertinent question: "How much has the Bulgarian state spent on defending the nurses in Libya?"

The politician concerned, United Democratic Forces (ODS) MP Yane Yanev, chose his moment well. Just a few days earlier, the Council of Ministers had decided to allocate an additional half a million leva towards the defence of the nurses. Until then, the whole matter was regarded as a kind of ill-disguised state secret. And that, it turned out, is still the case because Mr Kalfin maintained his predecessors' discretion and chose not to reveal the precise answer before the National Assembly.

Instead, Yanev received the following written reply from the Foreign Ministry: "It is difficult to make a precise calculation of the amount spent. Money has been allocated by various departments and institutions, coming from different budgets". However, the letter did list the money awarded over the years to Sofia's diplomatic headquarters. And the breakdown of the funds offers an interesting insight into the Bulgarian government's shifting attitude since 1999.

The amount awarded to the Foreign Ministry was not particularly large in the period immediately following the arrests of Dr Zdravko Georgiev and the five nurses - Christiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Snezhana Dimitrova, Valentina Siropulo and Valya Chervenyashka. The prime minister at that time, Ivan Kostov, even suggested they might be guilty.

The government of the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV), which took power in 2001, relied instead on quiet diplomacy. It increased the amounts which the Foreign Ministry transferred to the account of the Bulgarian Embassy in Tripoli.

Did Blair broker an exchange of Al-Megrahi for the nurses?

Did Blair broker an exchange of Al-Megrahi for the nurses?

In 2001, they totalled 37,100 leva, rising to 71,000 leva in 2002 and 190,000 leva in 2003. Over the next two years, the embassy had already amassed a budget of nearly 400,000 leva. From 2006 until March 2007 the coalition government of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the NDSV and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) added another half a million leva.

The Foreign Ministry Middle East and Africa Directorate, which deals with the Libyan issue, wrote that the money was spent on "expenses related to the trial, including food, first aid services, medication, materials and perishables as well as everyday necessities related to the imprisonment of the defendants".

In his reply to Yanev, Foreign Minister Kalfin also specified that every year the national budget allocates further amounts related to the trial. But the sums in question are allocated to the Justice Ministry and go towards "expenditure connected to the legal defence of the accused".

Unlike the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry has failed to itemise or even account for these additional amounts. There must be such information somewhere, but it is not yet in the public domain.

Perhaps the best way to gauge how much the Justice Ministry has received for the Libyan trial is to examine back copies of the State Gazette. The latest data are from 2 April 2007, when the Council of Ministers allocated half a million leva towards "expenses arising from the defence of the six accused Bulgarian citizens and Dr Ashraf."

A show of solidarity: Young people in Plovdiv form a You-Are-Not-Alone sign

Dr Ashraf al-Hajuj, the accused Palestinian doctor, obviously does not possess a Bulgarian passport. Yet the Bulgarian government continues to pay his lawyers as well because, as the State Gazette relates, it has failed to convince the Netherlands that the doctor is their responsibility. His family left Libya and gained asylum in a small town near Amsterdam, but negotiations held by Bulgarian diplomats in Tripoli with the Dutch mission have failed to reap results.

As a rule, over the last two or three years, the amount received by the Justice Ministry in connection with the "Libyan case" has always exceeded that allocated to the Foreign Ministry. Perhaps this is understandable because, in most cases, the large sums were to pay the fees of Osman Bizanti, the Bulgarian nurses' lawyer. The money leaves the cashier's office in $100 or euro banknotes, enclosed in manila envelopes, which are shipped by couriers as diplomatic pouches.

The embassy treasurer then exchanges the money into Libyan dinars because Bizanti insists on being paid in the local currency. Payments are made before he pleads at each level of judicial proceedings and, it's worth noting, there is no end in sight to the case. It has been a lucrative assignment - so far Bizanti has received over half a million leva. Irrespective of the currency used to calculate the funds allocated to the two ministries, the amount is - to put it mildly - considerable.

Does anybody exercise any control on how it is spent? Technically, this is the remit of the interdepartmental committee, established soon after the crisis broke, to coordinate the work of different ministries and state departments regarding all aspects of the trial. The problem is that it is unclear whether the committee calculates all expenses made for this case. If we add up only the amounts cited in the government decisions, it would appear that the medical workers have so far "cost" about 4.5 million leva. This, however, does not include other expenditure pertaining to the case. Dr Zdravko Georgiev, for example, who was acquitted two years ago, is on the payroll of the Bulgarian Embassy in Tripoli.

According to information from the Financial Department of the Foreign Ministry, he receives $800 a month for a fictitious job. If we add the funds contributed by the state-owned Tekhnoexportstroy company over the years, the bill amounts to five million leva. The exact amount is still a state secret.

The official attitude of Mr Kalfin, who is also deputy prime minister, was revealed in a letter: "It is impossible to give an exact figure of what the Bulgarian state has spent, not least because much of the effort and human resources - as well as the mental and nervous strain - cannot be measured in figures."

As so often happens in Bulgaria, affairs of state are conducted behind a veil of secrecy. But perhaps we - the humble taxpayers who foot the bill - are entitled to know more about where our money goes.


23 Bulgarian doctors and nurses are detained in Benghazi. Later, six of them remain in jail and the rest are released. Libya hands over two of its nationals to stand trial in a Scottish court on charges relating to the Lockerbie case (the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988).

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov makes a statement to the media in which he asks "What if they (the nurses) are guilty?"

Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qadhafi declares in Nigeria that the trial against the Bulgarian medics will be an international one - like the Lockerbie trial.

The People's Court overrules the most serious charge of conspiracy against the state. The Bulgarians remain behind bars and the trial is transferred from Tripoli to Benghazi. Renowned virus experts Professor Luc Montagnier and Professor Vittorio Colizzi are commissioned to report on the epidemic.

Tripoli accepts civil responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agrees to pay the victims' families compensation of $10 million each. Libya also agrees to suspend its weapons of mass destruction programme, a decision that prompts the UN to lift sanctions.

A court in Benghazi sentences the five Bulgarian nurses to death despite testimony from professors Montagnier and Colizzi that the HIV infection erupted before the nurses' arrival. The sixth Bulgarian, Dr Zdravko Georgiev, is acquitted.

Libya's Supreme Court revokes death sentences against the nurses and sends the case back to a lower court in Tripoli for retrial. But the lower court reinstates the death sentences.

Colonel Al-Qadhafi declares that the Bulgarian nurses will not be freed while there are still "unjustly accused" Libyan citizens in British jails. He again demands that families of the infected children should receive compensation.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visits Libya. He signs a "memorandum of understanding", allowing for an exchange of prisoners. The EU offers the Qadhafi Foundation financial support for its Benghazi fund and lifelong medical care for the infected children.


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