Unraveling the legal challenges surrounding HIV criminalisation in russia

Russian Court Cases and HIV Transmission: What You Need to Know

Text: Alexey Semenov

Russian courts annually pronounce several dozen sentences under articles related to the transmission of HIV infection. At the same time, leading international organizations have long called for the abandonment of such articles in the Criminal Code, because they interfere with the fight against the HIV epidemic. “Such Cases” examined judicial statistics and also found out why Russians write statements against their partners.

In 2019, a documentary was released on Russian television series Anton Krasovsky’s “Epidemic” about people living with HIV. Then the co-founder of the ANO “Sibiryachki Plus” Maria Petrova, whose story was told by the documentary filmmakers, received a call from her boyfriend, whom she had been dating for three years at that time.

“He was very excited. He said: “You are so and so, they showed you on the second channel. My relatives saw it.” And it was his relatives who told him that he would not eat with them, he would not wash with them,” recalls Maria.

Read also “How many partners have you had?” Why people with HIV prefer to hide their status

The man explained that in order to be rehabilitated in front of his relatives, he must write a statement against Maria to the police about “the threat of HIV infection.” Petrova could not transmit any virus to him – she had been going to the AIDS Center for a long time and regularly took therapy.

After some time, Maria received a call from the police and invited her to talk – they told her that a man had written a statement against her. The police immediately reassured Maria, noting that they would not initiate a case.

“What saved me was that I live with an open face, write about my status on social networks and hold events. And this man is among my friends and subscribers. The police examined social networks and decided that he could not have known about my status. And if a partner knows that a person has HIV, then there is no criminal case,” explains Maria.

What we thought

We have collected all available cases under Article 122 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation from the state system “Justice”, as well as statistics from the judicial department at the Supreme Court. Most of the texts of the verdicts are not published, as they relate to the intimate lives of people. The Eurasian Women’s AIDS Network, which has been monitoring cases of persecution of people with HIV and their blackmail since 2017, also shared cases with us.

Since then, Petrova has been approached by people with HIV who have been subject to statements of intentional infection, by those who want to go to the police, and by investigators who receive such cases. “It’s good if you come across a competent investigator and interrogator. But basically, since there is not much practice in such cases, many investigators and interrogators, reading the statement, come across this article for the first time,” says Maria.

Po data Judicial Department of the Supreme Court, since 2015, 702 people have been convicted in Russia under the article on intentional infection with HIV or creating a threat of such infection, and another 11 were sent to compulsory psychiatric treatment.

A little more than 0.9% of cases under this article were acquitted or dismissed on exonerating grounds. 17.5% of such cases were closed for other reasons, including due to the death of the accused. Thus, in 2021 in Adygea, a woman who infected her partner with HIV died during the trial. In Kabardino-Balkaria, a prisoner died after cutting his hand and spattering blood on the eye of a prison doctor. He was also accused of attempted infection with the virus.

“Why did you do this to me?”

According to the current Russian law, everyone who registers with the AIDS Center signs a warning about criminal liability for intentional infection with HIV. Courts pay attention to this circumstance when passing sentences: if a person signed documents in an infectious disease specialist’s office, any case of infection from him is considered intentional.

“Suppose I just found out that I have HIV. I go to the doctor, I’m dumbfounded. I think I’m going to die soon. And they tell me in the doctor’s office: “Sign the document.” What is in it is not very clear. But you take and sign a document stating that you are a potential criminal without thinking. Even if the doctor explains something, the person is unlikely to remember it, because at that moment he has something completely different in his head,” explains Maria.

Ekaterina Stepanova, an infectious disease doctor at the University Clinic H-Clinic, Candidate of Medical Sciences, who acts as an expert in criminal cases of HIV infection, believes that the process of warning about liability is organized incorrectly:

“People don’t understand what they signed, they don’t understand what they were told. Of course, the moment of signing these papers should be postponed to a time when the person is sane.”

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But epidemiologists are punished by their superiors if a person leaves and does not sign these papers, the doctor explains. “But you have to understand that the patient came, and instead of being supported, they interrogated him and said that he was facing a criminal case. Will he return to this wonderful place? “It’s more likely no than yes,” says Stepanova.

The victims in cases of HIV infection are often the former partners of patients, says Maria Petrova. Most often, sentences under articles of infection or threat of infection with HIV are made against men. They were convicted in 68% of cases, it follows from statistics Supreme Court of Russia since 2017.

“Mainly, the applicants are women who, out of resentment that their partner broke up with them, write a statement. He didn’t even infect them with HIV because he was taking ARV therapy, but they write a statement that he put them at risk of infection, and this is also a criminal offense,” explains Petrova.

In 2022, a resident of Novoaltaisk was sentenced to a suspended sentence for transmitting HIV to his partner as a result of a long “romantic relationship.” The couple had sex without a condom by consent, but after a while the woman discovered HIV pills on her lover and asked: “Why did you do this to me?” After this conversation, the relationship did not end and the young people continued to have sex, but broke up due to “domestic conflicts.” Some time later, the woman was diagnosed with HIV, and she wrote a statement against her former partner. He was sentenced to one year and eight months of suspended imprisonment.

Of the 17 cases of prosecution under Article 122 of the Criminal Code – about HIV infection or the threat of such infection, recorded by the Eurasian Women’s AIDS Network in 2017–2023, at least six are related to long-term, in fact, family relationships. Thus, a man from the Kurgan region was convicted in 2014 of having sex with his wife – at that time the couple was raising two children together. Maria Petrova emphasizes:

“If two consenting adults have sex, it is still a matter of two people.”

“And why is it always an HIV-positive person who is a potential criminal? After all, both are responsible for their health. And when one of the partners insists on sex without a condom or agrees to it, he is also responsible – two are to blame,” Maria is sure.

“If people decide not to use condoms, then they need to be examined together and remember the incubation window period and fidelity to each other. Such subtle issues that, it seems to me, are quite strange to regulate by criminal law,” says Natalya Sidorenko, coordinator of the working group on decriminalization of HIV transmission.

In the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) it says that any laws that criminalize HIV must be repealed because they discourage people from getting treatment and contribute to the spread of the virus.

“Punitive laws have been shown to block access to HIV services and increase the risk of HIV infection,” the organization said. It notes that criminalizing HIV transmission increases stigma against people living with the virus and creates an atmosphere of “false calm.” “People think that, on pain of criminal liability, their partner(s) will warn that they have HIV,” it says report “Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS”.

“In order to hide his own crime”

The article on HIV transmission is redundant, because the Criminal Code already regulates all possible consequences for victims, says Natalya Sidorenko.

“If this was sexualized violence, then the article “Rape” has a separate clause that increases the punishment for contracting HIV. Simply transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus is a harm of moderate severity, because the harm occurs with the development of the disease. And now we have antiretroviral therapy, and people do not live to reach the AIDS stage, because the disease does not develop and no harm is caused,” explains the coordinator.

Of the 910 cases of HIV transmission or threat of infection, more than 27% involve sexualized violence, Takie Cases calculated. Another 6% of these cases involve sexual contact between adults and minors. Also, more than 10% of cases involve other types of physical violence: robberies, assaults and beatings. In 12 cases, the defendants were charged with murder.

Sometimes the same people become victims of sexualized violence and at the same time involved in cases of HIV transmission. In 2015, a resident of Karachay-Cherkessia reported to the police about rape in a barn on a farm. But the police decided that no one had raped the woman, and she wrote the statement “in order to hide her own crime” – the threat of infecting her partner with HIV. The woman was sentenced to two years of suspended imprisonment for false denunciation and the theoretical possibility of transmitting the virus.

When considering such cases, the courts do not examine the real possibility of the defendant infecting the victim, explains Maria Petrova.

“Nobody finds out whether a person took therapy”

“A specialist from the AIDS Center comes to court and speaks as a representative of the state, but the Russian Ministry of Health does not recognize the principle “undetectable equals non-transmitting”. That is, doctors from public hospitals claim that the likelihood of infection from a person with an undetectable viral load still exists, although all leading experts say the opposite,” says Maria.

“Those who were reported and came to us took therapy. It turns out that they could not create a threat to transmit the virus,” confirms coordinator Natalya Sidorenko.

Po opinion WHO, the risk of transmission of the virus from a person with an undetectable viral load is “virtually zero.” But the chief freelance HIV specialist of the Russian Ministry of Health, Alexey Mazus believes that the studies proving this position are based on too small a sample of patients.

“There are no specifics on this issue, only sloganeering, which ultimately allows us to speak publicly about the unlimited right of a patient with HIV infection with an abstract “undetectable” viral load to have free sexual contacts and even to conceal the diagnosis,” Mazus said.

Doctor Ekaterina Stepanova says that Rospotrebnadzor specialists already recognize people with an undetectable viral load as harmless. In the last editorial staff The SanPiN department indicates the existence of “quantitative indicators of the presence of the virus in the blood below the level that ensures the possibility of HIV transmission.”

“In fact, allegations about the possibility of transmission of the virus from people with an undetectable load are due to the insufficient education of those doctors who appear in courts. Because many experts agree with a different point of view. And science has done enough for others to stop denying the obvious,” the infectious disease specialist is sure.

At the same time, courts do not always take into account the opinions of doctors

Stepanova recalls one of the trials in which she participated as an expert – then all the experts agreed that the defendant could not transmit the virus, but the conclusions were interpreted incorrectly: “Judges often say: “We are examining the rule of law, not this infection of yours.” ” And then, when the analysis begins and they realize that they don’t understand anything, they’re like: “Okay, let’s get your experts.”

According to Stepanova, the denial of the principle “undetectable equals non-transmitting” by part of the medical community leads to a decrease in the coverage of patients with therapy. By data for 2022, only 61% of Russians with an officially established diagnosis received therapy. To defeat the epidemic, this figure must be increased to 95% worldwide, and 95% must have an undetectable viral load, believes UNAIDS.

“People who do not receive therapy are really dangerous in terms of transmitting the virus. But it is they who most often do not receive any punishment if others are infected, because they are not registered and do not sign a warning about criminal liability,” explains doctor Stepanova.

Bite danger

Russian courts consider biting, spitting and splashing of blood to be the real ways of transmitting the virus, as follows from the published verdicts. Thus, a resident of Yuzhnouralsk was convicted, among other things, of the threat of HIV infection for biting a policeman in the “right shoulder blade area.” A resident of Korolev was convicted on similar charges in 2015, and in 2018, a student who escaped from a Vologda orphanage was convicted.

“One of the cases involves an examination by an employee of the AIDS Center, who said that the possibility of transmission of the virus through a bite cannot be ruled out. But this is nonsense. WHO, UNAIDS and all other people, adequate infectious disease epidemiologists, will say that the probability of transmitting the virus through a bite is zero,” says Natalya Sidorenko.

Infectious disease doctor Ekaterina Stepanova emphasizes that during all the years of the HIV epidemic, only a few cases of transmission of the virus through a bite have been recorded: “The risk is theoretically possible with a high viral load and a sufficiently large amount of blood in the saliva. Roughly speaking, if, for example, during the detention of a suspect, his teeth were knocked out, his face was broken, and he spat at a police officer, there is some risk here.”

According to the State Automated Information Agency “Justice”, violence against police officers was charged along with the threat of HIV infection in 2.5% of cases. Often, security forces expose themselves to an additional risk of contracting HIV when they deprive detained, arrested and convicted people of access to therapy, Stepanova notes:

“Here it is in the interests of the state and its representatives that people take therapy”

“This is necessary so that even at such moments the risk of infection is minimal,” says the infectious disease specialist.

In 5% of cases of HIV infection, according to the State Automated Information System “Justice”, along with the main accusation, the courts dealt with episodes of theft and fraud; 11 cases were related to drugs, 13 – to other crimes.

In 55% of cases, according to the same data, the defendants were not charged with anything other than possible HIV transmission. Moreover, at least 14 people were convicted only for the threat of infection, which in reality did not occur.

Articles on HIV infection migrated to the Russian Criminal Code from the Soviet one, says coordinator Natalya Sidorenko. “Of course, this article is outdated – it was adopted in the late 80s in the Criminal Code of the RSFSR, then it migrated to all these criminal codes in the post-Soviet space. Then there was no information about HIV, there was no treatment and, of course, there was enough fear.”

Doctor Stepanova agrees with Sidorenko – she calls the article on HIV infection inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge. “The norm was adopted quite a long time ago, the revision was also a long time ago, and ideas about the safety of people with an undetectable load were finally approved in 2018,” she explains.

Natalya Sidorenko calls the existence of the first paragraph of Article 122 of the Criminal Code “nonsense” – about “putting another person at risk of contracting HIV infection.” According to her, this formulation creates the problem of blackmail of people with HIV from their partners.

Since 2017, the Eurasian Women’s AIDS Network has documented 15 cases of blackmail. They were mainly associated with disagreements between former partners and spouses – for example, when they could not decide with whom their common children would live.

So, a husband wanted to write a statement against a woman from the Nizhny Novgorod region, who was upset about the upcoming divorce. The woman was saved from a criminal case by the fact that he was indicated in the medical record as a proxy, was examined during his wife’s pregnancy and visited the AIDS Center with her.

This is the best way for a person with HIV to protect themselves from accusations in the event of a disagreement with their partner, says Maria Petrova. In addition to a joint visit to the doctor, she recommends telling a third person about your status, and also getting a receipt from your partner.

Pressure on people with HIV

Such strict regulation of the lives of people with HIV leads to the fact that they are simply afraid to enter into relationships, and even more so to inform their partners about their diagnosis, says project manager of the Children+ Foundation, psychologist Anna Sharabanova. Partners of people with HIV may be pressured by relatives who have misconceptions about the infection.

“There are always exceptions, and one of them is older people who grew up in a time when HIV was considered a plague and everyone avoided these three letters as much as possible. It is often difficult for such people to accept new information, it is difficult to agree that there is no danger, to get rid of beliefs that have accumulated over the years. For this reason, the relatives of someone who has chosen a person living with HIV as a partner raise this issue sharply, even to the point of ultimatums – they put pressure towards not just breaking the union, but also legal proceedings,” says Sharabanova.

If a person with HIV has difficulty disclosing the diagnosis to a partner, she advises contacting a specialized psychologist or peer consultants: “The words “I am a peer consultant, I have a husband with whom we gave birth to three healthy children, two higher educations and a very successful career.” “Coming from a living example can calm a person.”

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