Canada: Community organisations in Ontario call for an immediate moratorium on all prosecutions and sound prosecutorial guidelines

Stop the witch-hunt of HIV criminalization

People living with HIV are being charged with some of the most serious offences in our criminal law, even in situations where there has been no transmission of HIV, no realistic possibility of transmission, and no intent to transmit.

Witch-hunts aren’t always sudden social paroxysms. They can be pursued slowly and with a veneer of legality — a steady erosion of rights and decency tapping into, and reinforcing deep-rooted fear, stigma and prejudice. Their harm isn’t limited solely to the injustices meted out to those directly targeted; they cast a broader shadow over entire communities.

It’s what’s happening here, courtesy of the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General that has so far refused to recognize both science and human rights when it comes to prosecutions for alleged nondisclosure of HIV.

People living with HIV are being charged with some of the most serious offences in our criminal law (such as “aggravated sexual assault”), even in situations where there has been no transmission of HIV, no realistic possibility of transmission, and no intent to transmit.

Simply put, they are being criminalized for having HIV, caught up in a justice system, from policing to prosecution to prison, that too often disregards evidence and the public interest.

(After the recent incident involving a Toronto police officer talking nonsense about how “AIDS” can be transmitted, it’s clear there is much work to be done on the policing front, too. Scientific consensus is that there is zero risk of HIV transmission through spit and a vanishingly minuscule possibility of transmission through a bite. At least scientifically speaking, we’re not in 1984.)

For many years, a group of committed people living with HIV, lawyers, academics and other advocates has called on the attorney general to put an end to this overly broad use of the criminal law.

In particular, this coalition has urged the adoption of sound guidelines for prosecutors to appropriately limit the use of criminal charges. Repeatedly, it has denounced problematic prosecutions that continue in Ontario — prosecutions accompanied by media coverage that, according to a recent study, disproportionately features black and/or immigrant men and often reflects racist stereotypes. Repeatedly, the coalition has suggested remedies for this ongoing injustice, drawing on a province-wide consultation.

But successive attorneys general have been unable or unwilling to rein in overzealous prosecutors, and have failed to develop prosecutorial guidance in line with science and numerous international recommendations.

As it stands, a so-called “HIV experts group” of crown prosecutors within the ministry now runs this horrible show in Ontario, leading the charge against people living with HIV. From the outside, we don’t know the group’s composition or how they make their decisions to pursue a particular prosecution.

Community organizations have requested a meeting. So, too, have scientific experts — who have pointed out that a correctly used latex condom is 100 per cent effective in blocking passage of HIV, as well as the science now establishing that someone with an undetectable viral load (including as a result of effective treatment with anti-HIV drugs) is effectively non-infectious. Yet this group of “HIV expert” prosecutors has not responded.

However, recent reports in the Star revealed an infamous guide for prosecuting cases of HIV nondisclosure, developed by Hamilton crown attorney Karen Shea — who has played an active role in advancing such cases around the province — for use by other prosecutors. (The government was ordered to release this document after years of wrangling in court.)

A Ministry spokesperson admitted the guide takes a “prosecution at all costs” approach and “doesn’t take into consideration the kinds of situations in which a more lenient approach might be justified.”

It is therefore no surprise that we continue to see the misuse of charges of aggravated sexual assault, a criminal offence usually reserved for the most violent rapes, even in cases of consensual sex where there was negligible or no risk of HIV transmission, no actual transmission and no intent to transmit.

Such prosecutions damage individual lives and public health. As stated last month by Canada’s federal justice minister, “… the over-criminalization of HIV nondisclosure discourages many individuals from being tested and seeking treatment, and further stigmatizes those living with HIV or AIDS.”

Enough is enough. Attorney General Yasir Naqvi — and Premier Wynne herself, who expressed her concern to us in-person three years ago — must stop this witch-hunt. More than 500 letters of concern have, as of this week, been sent to both by outraged community members.

We need an immediate moratorium on all prosecutions (except in those very rare cases of intentional transmission), and we need sound prosecutorial guidelines that respect science and human rights.

Richard Elliott is the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, a member of the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure. Stephen Lewis is board chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and co-director of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization.

Published in The Star on February 8, 2017