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Cablegate: Bulgarian Prisoners in Libya: Sofia Seeks

VZCZCXRO2221
PP RUEHDBU RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHSF #1230 2421426
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 301426Z AUG 06
FM AMEMBASSY SOFIA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2458
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
REUHTRO/AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI

C O N F I D E N T I A L SOFIA 001230

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/30/2016
TAGS: PREL PHUM LY BG
SUBJECT: BULGARIAN PRISONERS IN LIBYA: SOFIA SEEKS
CONTINUED SUPPORT AS END-GAME NEARS

REF: EMBASSY TRIPOLI E-MAIL 8/29/06

Classified By: CDA Alex Karagiannis, reasons 1.4(b) and (d).

1. (C) SUMMARY. After the August 29 court hearing in Tripoli
(ref), Bulgarian officials are showing signs of guarded
optimism that the current judicial process may run its course
before the end of September. This would open the way for a
political decision to return to Bulgaria the six nurses
imprisoned since 1999 on charges of deliberately spreading
the HIV virus in Benghazi. The GOB is keeping a low
public-affairs profile as the process unfolds, and counts on
continued behind-the-scenes pressure on Libya from the U.S.
and EU. The MFA thanked us for the Department's August 29
statement in support of the nurses. END SUMMARY.

2. (C) We met August 30 with Petko Doykov, the director of
the MFA's Middle East Department, to discuss the results of
the previous day's court hearing in Tripoli. Doykov said the
latest trial is unfolding according to Bulgarian
expectations. He believes the court will hold one or two
more hearings and reach a verdict "in mid September." Doykov
said that at the last session of the four-party talks with
Libya, Bulgaria emphasized that reaffirmation of the death
penalty would be an unacceptable outcome. Instead, the GOB
hopes to see sentences ranging between 15 years to life
imprisonment. There is no expectation that the nurses will
be found not guilty or otherwise set free by the current
court. On the other hand, reaffirmation of the death
sentences would put the Bulgarian government in a difficult
political position, according to Doykov, forcing it to
respond publicly. The tenor of the Bulgarian response will
also be influenced by the proximity of presidential
elections, scheduled to take place October 22.

3. (C) In either case, Bulgaria believes it has a tacit
understanding with Libya and the other parties to the talks
that the nurses will be returned to Bulgaria in short order
following the conclusion of the trial. Most likely, this
would involve allowing the nurses to "serve out their
sentences" in Bulgaria according to the terms of the two
countries' bilateral agreement on prisoner exchanges. Less
likely would be an outright pardon, perhaps in connection
with the beginning of Ramadan o/a September 22-23. If the
best-case scenario does not materialize, Doykov surmised that
the nurses would have to wait until after Ramadan for the
Higher Judicial Council -- a political body chaired by the
Minister of Justice -- to act.

4. (C) Doykov said that the bi-weekly court appearances were
taking a heavy psychological toll on the five nurses, several
of whom were already in poor health after seven years in
Libyan prisons. Meanwhile, the GOB is pushing ahead with
plans for a meeting of the Bulgaria-Libya Joint Commission
focusing on economic issues, which last met in 1999. A team
of Libyan officials headed by the chief of the MFA's
Directorate for International Cooperation is scheduled to
visit Sofia September 19-20. The Bulgarians consider the
timing of the visit a positive sign. On the parallel issue
of debt forgiveness, "the paperwork has already been
completed" to forgive Libya's debt to Bulgaria. All that is
required is a formal decision by the Council of Ministers to
forgive the debt -- estimated at roughly USD 27 million --
once the nurses are released. The Bulgarians intention is to
package this as part of the Benghazi process.

5. (C) COMMENT. Bulgarians are not prone to optimism even in
the best of circumstances, but Doykov was the least
pessimistic that we have ever seen him. The Bulgarians
clearly believe they are approaching the end-game in this
seven-year saga. At the same time, Doykov asked for continued
strong U.S. and EU engagement until the nurses are released.
The Bulgarians are convinced that the U.S. is the only party
with enough leverage to convince Libya to step up to the
plate and take what may be a politically difficult decision
to send these five nurses back to Bulgaria. END COMMENT
KARAGIANNIS

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