Libya’s highest judicial body said on Tuesday it had commuted the death sentences against six foreign medics to life imprisonment.

“The High Judicial Council decided to commute the death sentences against the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to life-imprisonment terms,” the Council said in a brief statement.

Earlier, the families of more than 400 children in Libya infected with the HIV virus started receiving compensation, clearing the way for the sentence to be changed.

Under Islamic tradition, the settlement make it possible for the country’s Supreme Judicial Council to spare the lives of the health workers.

Libya’s Supreme Court last week confirmed the death sentences against five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, leaving the Judicial Council as their last remaining hope.

The new arrangement is the result of lengthy negotiations between Libya, Bulgaria and the European Union. The money received by the families, said to total $400m , comes from a fund set up 2005 under the aegis of the EU. The Gadaffi Foundation, headed by the Libyan leader’s son, Seif Al Islam, played a leading role in the negotiations.

The medics, who were sentenced to death first in 2004 and then again after appealing in 2006, have been in prison for eight years. They allege that they were tortured by the Libyans to extract confessions that they infected the children.

Fifty-six of the children have already died. There were no known AIDS cases in Libya before what appeared to be an HIV epidemic broke out in the Benghazi children’s hospital in the east of the country.

Experts believe poor hygiene in the hospital was the real reason for the outbreak and the Libyan courts heard evidence from Dr Luc Montagnier, the French scientist who first isolated the HIV virus, that the start of the infections predated the arrival of the nurses at the hospital.

Bulgaria has granted the Palestinian doctor Bulgarian citizenship so that he may be included in any deal to release the nurses.

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