Human rights groups have accused the Libyan government of concocting the charges to cover up unsafe practices in its hospitals and clinics.

Relatives of the victims and two of the infected youngsters, demonstrated outside the court during the preliminary hearing, waving banners demanding “Death to the child killers”.

The case has provoked tensions between Libya and Bulgaria, but the nurses’ lawyer says he is “optimistic”.

The six health workers were sentenced to death last March for infecting 380 children with the HIV virus through contaminated blood at a hospital on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

Forty-seven children at the paediatric hospital have died of the disease.

The defendants, who have already spent six years in jail, all maintain their innocence.

Two nurses and the doctor initially confessed to the charges, but later claimed police extracted their confessions with torture, including beatings and electric shocks.

Two of the five female nurses said they were raped.

During last year’s trial, Luc Montaignier, the French doctor who first isolated the HIV virus, testified he believed the children were infected in 1987 – more than a year before the Bulgarians were hired.

Instead the court based its verdict on a report by Libyan experts that placed the blame on the foreign health workers.

The Bulgarian press said the six have been made “scapegoats” in a bid to calm the public outrage that the epidemic has provoked in Libya.

But the lawyer for families of the children, Ramadan al-Futuri, told AFP after the hearing that “we are asking the court to confirm the death sentences.”

Fears for the fate of the nurses rose further last week when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, criticised Western attempts to win their release.

Tripoli has said that in exchange for the freedom of the nurses, it wants compensation equal to that paid by Libya to relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie plane bombing carried out by its secret service in 1988.

But Bulgarian authorities have rejected the demand, saying giving in would amount to acknowledging the guilt of the six.

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