By MILENA HRISTOVA March 27, 2014
27 March, 2014. A day, which the Bulgarian medics, who were sentenced to death by a Libyan court in a travesty HIV trial, will certainly remember for the rest of their lives.
Cecilia Attias, previously Sarkozy, France's enigmatic former first lady, came back to Bulgaria to meet them, seven years after her mercy mission saved them from the clutches of Libya's dictator Gaddafi.
Unlike back then, now the Bulgarians and the woman they perceive as their saviour had enough time just for themselves.
No politicians, much less fussing around.
But even in these emotional moments, France's former first lady could not help hinting and fuming at the intense criticism in Europe for "hijacking" a process that took years to claim all the plaudits, as well as suggestions of a commercial trade-off with the Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi.
Cecilia made two trips to Libya before the prisoners were extradited to Bulgaria, soon after they received death sentences for allegedly infecting children with the AIDS virus.
On March 27, 2014 she recounted her own story at a press conference in Sofia, flanked by three of the grateful nurses.
“During my first visit to Libya, I met only one person - Col Muammar Gaddafi. Our talks continued for 20 hours. My aim was to secure the release of the Bulgarian nurses. Benita Ferrero-Waldner [the then European Commissioner for External Affairs] was not part of the delegation during my first trip to Libya.
When I boarded the plane, at 3 am, I told myself: “Oh, God, why am I departing without them [the Bulgarian medics]?”
“Ten days later I was back. But I was told I can't meet Col Muammar Gaddafi as he is having a nap. I held the negotiations with representatives of the government. There was not a single representative of Saif Al-Islam foundation. Later it turned out they were against the medics' release.
“When I convinced the members of the Libyan government of the need to release the Bulgarian medics, Col Muammar Gaddafi suddenly turned up."
During the meeting that ensued, it became clear that Gaddafi's only and major concern was how to break the news of the medics' release to the people of Benghazi.
It was in Benghazi that the Bulgarian medics' tragedy started.
It was Benghazi, the country's second city, that turned into a scene of bloodsheds, an open-air morgue, a leading focus of protests against four decades of rule by Col Muammar Gaddafi a few years later.
Hours before Bulgaria's accession to the European Union on January 1, 2007, I dared forecast that the travesty trial of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor in Libya will be Sofia's first test for Brussels.
Just a month earlier the medics were sentenced to death by a Libyan court on charges of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with the HIV virus.
It was on that winter day at the end of 2006 that many Bulgarians became acutely aware of the impact of the passivity of the international community, the doomed "quiet diplomacy" of the Bulgarian governments and their fruitless efforts over no less than eight years.
It was on that day that Europeans understood Libya had only one authority and one official who mattered and who was not afraid to kill to protect his power: Gaddafi, the mad dog of the Middle East.
The European Union passed the test with flying colors - on 24 July, 2007 the freed medics arrived home to scenes of jubilation and were pardoned by the then Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.
For the death-sentenced nurses and doctor Bulgaria's entry into the club of the rich and its involvement in their case brought the miracle of a new life.
In 2007, Bulgaria completely wrote off Libya's debt to facilitate negotiations and obtain the release from jail of the six Bulgarian medics. The involvement of the Sarkozy couple in the final stages of the talks and the suspicious deal the French President struck with Gaddafi secured their transfer and subsequent pardoning in Sofia.
In this way the big European winner in the deal was France, and the release of the medical workers was a diplomatic coup for Nicolas Sarkozy, who wanted to replicate for France Blair's stunning success with Libya.
The medical workers' liberation paved the way to full political and economic rapprochement for Libya in the international community, a fact, which now should be a cause for embarrassment at least. Now those international leaders, who rehabilitated Gaddafi, declared him an ally in the battle against al-Qaida and signed lucrative contracts to buy his oil, have a lot to think about and answer for.
Sarkozy and Blair were not alone in this. The Bush administration, Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and a succession of world leaders, including Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and late Nelson Mandela embraced Gaddafi back into the international fold and were happy to elect Libya to the UN Human Rights Council.
When the wind of change started blowing in Libya at the beginning of 2011, the dictator Gaddafi responded with lethal force. The bloodshed and unscrupulousness summed up his whole tenure, in which the five death-sentence Bulgarian medics had made a cameo, but ill-boding appearance.
In March 2011, eleven years after their arrest and the horrors of Libya's jails, the Bulgarian medics were morally vindicated - Libya admitted that Muammar Gaddafi is behind the HIV outbreak in Benghazi.
Libya's former Justice Minister, who had just joined the anti-Gaddafi forces in the country, stated that not the Bulgarian medics, but the regime of leader Muammar Gaddafi was responsible for infecting more than 400 children with HIV.
Speaking for Al Jazeera, Mustafa Abudel-Jalil said the trial involving Bulgarian medics was just one of several serious crimes committed by Gaddafi's regime against his own people.
With this statement Gaddafi's formerly closest aide acquitted morally the Bulgarian medics, who had been turned into scapegoats, and cleared the tarnish, with which Bulgaria had been smeared for more than a decade.
The announcement also taught the world one more of Libya's terrible lessons – that there is no point in and no excuse for cozying up to a tyrant. Even if he proclaims to be a new man.
Sadly, scoring the much-awaited moral victory over the mercurial, merciless and manipulating tyrant was not that good bit of news for the medics themselves. After having spent years on end in an African prison, much of it on a death row, the absolving just came a bit too late.
"Human will is a very powerful weapon. When you have a really strong desire to save someone's life, you find different ways to do it," Cecilia Attias said in Sofia on March 27, 2014, taking up a journalist's question what helped her successfully complete her mission.
Not everyone is buying it, however.
A recently published book reveals the medics were pawns in a chess game of business interests and the Sarkozy couple came into the picture in the very last minute to the surprise of EU and Bulgarian politicians.
“The release of the Bulgarian nurses from Libyan prison was agreed with the Libyan authorities to the very last details. The medics were supposed to get aboard the plane, which was to take them to Bulgaria, with European Commissioner for External Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Cecilia Sarkozy however got ahead of her.”
This emerges from an interivew of Bulgaria's then Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivaylo Kalfin to French journalist with Bulgarian roots, Roumiana Ougartchinska and Italian magistrate Rosario Priore, authors of "Pour la peau de Gaddafi. Wars, secrets, lies."
The Bulgarian medics however have always extolled France's former first lady ever since in November 2009 they were questioned in Paris by a parliamentary commission in a bid to shed light on the circumstances of their release.
Valya Chervenyashka, Valentina Siropulo, Snezhana Dimitrova, Nasya Nenova and Palestinian-born Ashraf Ahmad Djum'a al-Hadjudj thanked Cecilia Sarkozy and called her "an extraordinary woman."
"If I were French, I'd be proud of her," Dimitrova said.
Asked by the commission's head, Socialist lawmaker Pierre Moscovici, to describe any deals that might been struck to secure their release, the medics balked.
Seven years later, they are certain the whole truth will never come out. But stress that no matter the rights and wrongs of the so-called "Affaire Libyenne", the then First Lady Cecilia Sarkozy played a key role.
“We will never know the whole truth about our release,” said Valya Chervenyashka, one of the sentenced medics in Sofia on March 27, 2014,
“Meeting Cecilia is very important for us. She is the one who took us aboard the French plane and took us home."
The Bulgarian nurses' jail life sentences however are still in force in Libya and they hope Cecilia Attias may soon embark on a new mercy mission there to help revoke them.
"She is our saviour.”