Elitsa Savova, Clive Leviev-Sawyer and Juliana Ivanova, sofiaecho.com
Joy, hugs, flowers and a presidential pardon have made up the welcome home for Bulgaria's six medics imprisoned for the past eight years in Libya.
A French presidential aircraft delivered the medics -- Kristiyana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valya Chervenyashka, Snezhana Dimitrova, Valentina Siropulo, Dr. Zdravko Georgiev and Palestinian doctor Ashraf Alhajouj - to Sofia Airport at 9.51am on July 24 2007. A national outpouring of emotion erupted at the sight of the medics stepping on to home soil, amid the bright Bulgarian sun that greeted them amid a record heatwave.
Forty-five minutes later, Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin told a VIP hall jam-packed with senior Government officials, journalists and family members who came to welcome the medics that President Georgi Purvanov had formally pardoned the medics of the crimes for which Libya had convicted them. The medics were given life sentences for deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. Twice sentenced to death by Libyan courts for the deliberate infection of hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, charges denied by the medics and rejected by Bulgaria and several other countries, multilaterals, medical experts and human rights organisations, on July 17 2007 the medics' sentences were commuted by the Libyan supreme judicial council, a political body, to life imprisonment.
After the families of the Libyan children accepted financial settlements reportedly worth $1 million for each child, negotiations began to bring the medics home. Bulgaria and Libya have a convict exchange agreement signed in the 1980s.
Soon after the door opened, the medics were the first to appear on the walkway. As they reached the foot of the stairs, their families rushed to them with hugs and kisses.
Those who greeted them included President Purvanov, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, Speaker of Parliament Georgi Pirinski, Foreign Minister Kalfin, former foreign minister Solomon Passi, the European Commission's senior official in Sofia, Michael Humphreys, and several ambassadors, notably French ambassador Etienne de Poncins.
The welcome home was broadcast live on all Bulgarian national channels and international channels including CNN and Euronews.
The medics were due to be transferred from the airport to Sofia's military hospital for check-ups. After that they were due to move for some days to the state Boyana Residence to spend time with their families. On the medics' faces, there was a range of emotions, with some smiles and other expressions more difficult to read. It has been widely reported that at least some of the medics have been profoundly traumatised during their time in Libyan custody, which they have said included torture to extract confessions from them.
Kalfin told the crowd: "Welcome home to our compatriots. This is great news it is a day of joy."
He echoed earlier comments by Purvanov thanking all those who had given solidarity to the nurses. Purvanov expressed "great satisfaction" with the outcome, while expressing sympathy with the HIV-infected children.
Soon after Kalfin read out the announcement of Purvanov's decree, Purvanov emerged, and exchanged kisses and embraces with the medics.
Also on the aircraft were Cécilia Sarkozy, the wife of the French president, and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European External Relations Commissioner, who were in Libya for prolonged final negotiations on returning the medics to Libya. On July 23 2007, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddaffi received Cecilia Sarkozy, Ferrero-Waldner and French presidency general secretary Claude Gueant, to discuss the release of the medics, Agence France-Presse reported. According to Bulgarian media reports, French intervention and Mrs. Sarkozy's visit had decisive role in the case resolution. On July 23, the BBC reported that Libya was demanding full diplomatic ties with the EU in return for releasing the medics to Bulgaria.
Cecilia Sarkozy told the crowd: "This is a great moment for the EU and Bulgaria."
Business in Bulgaria came to a standstill as people crowded around television sets and radios to watch the medics' return. Reports said that the transport to take the medics for their checkups could not leave the airport because so many ordinary people had flooded to the airport to welcome the nurses.