HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE COVID-19 criminalisation statement now available in Arabic

Today, the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee statement on lessons learned from HIV criminalisation as it relates to COVID-19 criminalisation, has been published in a fifth language, Arabic.

Download the statement in Arabic / تحميل البيان باللغة العربية

We are grateful to our Global Advisory Panel member, Elie Balan, head of the LGBT Health Department (M-Coalition) at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, for undertaking the translation. 

The statement was originally published on 25 March in English, French and Spanish, and on 26 March in Russian.

The HIV Justice Network (HJN) continues to monitor the many ways legal, policy and police responses to COVID-19 is negatively impacting the human rights of people living with HIV, as well as individuals and communities most impacted by HIV. 

Each week, Sylvie Beaumont, HJN’s Research / Outreach Co-ordinator, curates our HIV Justice Weekly newsletter. She ensures that all of the previous week’s key articles and podcasts critiquing punitive responses to HIV and/or COVID-19, as well as HIV and COVID-19 criminalisation cases can be found in one place.

If you haven’t already signed up to receive the newsletter, published each Friday, you can do so at: https://www.hivjustice.net/hiv-justice-weekly

 

Canadian study provides damning evidence of the “dramatic overrepresentation” of Black men in HIV criminalisation news reporting

A new study published this month by a group of leading Canadian social science academics provides damning evidence of the extraordinary over-representation of Black and Black immigrant male defendants in news reporting of Canadian HIV criminalisation cases.

Eric Mykhalovskiy and Colin Hastings from York University, Toronto; Chris Sanders from Lakehead University, Thunder Bay; and Laura Bisaillon from the University of Toronto Scarborough, analysed 1680 English-language articles published between 1989 and 2015.

They found that Black men comprised 21% of those charged with HIV criminalisation offences – which under Canadian law relates to non-disclosure of known HIV-positive status, usually charged as aggravated sexual assault –  but were the focus of 62% of newspaper articles covering the issue. The pattern was amplified for Black men who were immigrants or refugees who made up 15% of those charged but were the focus of 61% of newspaper stories.

The researchers note:

“The result is a type of popular racial profiling in which HIV non-disclosure is treated as a crime of Black men who are represented as dangerous, hypersexual foreigners who threaten the health and safety of the public and, more broadly, the imagined Canadian nation.”

 

The study is important for more than its quantitative findings, as it also considers the role of the media in the construction of public perception.

The researchers argue that media reporting involves a process of “recontextualization,” which occurs when speech is selected and moved from one place (e.g. a court) and fitted into another for a different purpose (e.g. a media story). In other words, they say, information is “selectively reported and repurposed into news stories”.

Their analysis found that in media reporting of HIV criminalisation cases, ‘whiteness’ became a neutral position. This usually meant that when a person was white their ethnicity or immigration status was rarely, if ever, mentioned.

For Black men living with HIV, however, the researchers found that the reporting was racialised, depicting such men as morally blameworthy and discussing them in terms of their “immigration status, hypersexuality, and other forms of racialised difference”.

Consequently, they argue, Black men living with HIV are depicted in these news reports not only as a threat to individual complainants, but also as a threat to Canadian society.

The researchers also discussed how news media reporting routinely involves forms of writing that silence people facing HIV-related criminal charges. Their experiences are rarely heard which, they summise, is likely due to reporters’ decisions about who to quote, as well as defendants being discouraged by their laywers to publicly comment on their cases.

Consequently, people living with HIV involved in HIV criminalisation cases are only spoken about, and their lives are only known about within the context of crime stories.

The authors hope their analysis will help advocates “to intervene in popular news coverage of HIV non-disclosure”, urging the use of counter-narratives emphasising how HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission should be seen as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue.

They conclude:

The profound silencing of Black immigrant men in newspaper coverage of HIV non-disclosure suggests the need to support strategies that create an affirmative presence in mainstream media for Black men living with HIV.


Source

Eric Mykhalovskiy, Chris Sanders, Colin Hastings & Laura Bisaillon (2020) Explicitly racialised and extraordinarily over-represented: Black immigrant men in 25 years of news reports on HIV non-disclosure criminal cases in Canada, Culture, Health & Sexuality, DOI: 10.1080/13691058.2020.1733095

Further resources

 

Spanish Supreme Court sets important HIV criminalisation precedent

The Spanish Supreme Court has set an important precedent for HIV criminalisation cases, making it clear that it is not solely up to the defendant to prove that they disclosed their HIV-positive status, as other factors can inform a court’s judgement about whether or not a complainant knew the accused was HIV-positive. The ruling should also make it more difficult for people to pursue vexatious or ‘revenge’ cases against ex-partners.

As outlined in a (Spanish-language) analysis by Professor Miguel Angel Ramiro Avilés, Legal Clinic Coordinator at the University of Alcalá, this decision is an important step forward in the construction of a rights-based HIV response in Spain, permitting a defence based on the principle of dubio pro reo, and the constitutional guarantee of the presumption of innocence.

However, in his conclusion he notes:

Finally, at no time during the proceedings before the Court was the relationship of causality questioned, and an attempt was made to carry out a phylogenetic analysis; nor was the question of [the defendant’s] viral load raised before the Court. This is a step in a long road ahead.

Spain does not have an HIV-specific criminal law – nor a law requiring HIV disclosure – instead relying on general criminal laws relating to injury to prosecute potential or perceived HIV exposure, or alleged HIV transmission.

However, informed consent (usually obtained by proving prior disclosure of known HIV-positive status by the accused to the complainant) can be a defence, as is the case in most jurisdictions using general criminal laws, and so cases hinge on whether or not a complainant was aware of an accused’s HIV-positive status before sex occurred and consented to the risk of ‘harm’.

The case

The March 2020 Supreme Court decision relates to the case of a woman who began a romantic relationship with the defendant in 2012, living with him for approximately 18 months. She was diagnosed HIV-positive in September 2013. Police were called to their home in June 2014 following an argument. They separated approximately three months later.

Following the separation, the woman complained to the police based on her belief that she had acquired HIV from her ex-partner. The police filed an assault charge using Article 149.1 of the Spanish Penal Code: causing aggravated injury. The charge was based on her assertion that if she had known her partner had been living with HIV, she would not have had condomless sex with him.

After an initial ‘not guilty’ verdict at the Provincial Court of Madrid (due to the complainant’s inconsistent testimony), the case was elevated to the Supreme Court. Like the Provincial Court, the Supreme Court did not consider evidence relating to whether or not the man had actually transmitted HIV to the woman (considering neither viral load nor phylogenetic analysis), accepting the assertion of HIV transmission at face value. Instead, the case hinged on the credibility of the woman’s testimony and associated evidence, as considered through a lens of dubio pro reo, (‘in cases of doubt, then for the accused’; i.e. innocent until proven guilty.)

Evidence

The woman testified that she had specifically asked her ex-partner whether he had HIV and he had denied it, so she did not know he was HIV-positive.

The court, however, was not convinced that she was unaware of his HIV-positive status for a number of reasons. She testified that she had used cocaine and hashish with him, which suggested to the Court that she knew he engaged in ‘high risk’ activities associated with HIV transmission. A former friend testified that ‘the entire neighbourhood knew’ that the accused had HIV, so he could not understand how the woman would not have known. The accused’s sister had also warned the woman to ‘protect herself’ and ‘take measures’: the sister said she was sure that the woman had understood her meaning given the context of their conversation.

Medical evidence showed that during the relationship the defendant had visible lesions on his penis, which worsened during and after sex, which the Court found the woman must have seen and understood to be evidence of a sexually transmitted infection.

Further, the court took a dim view of the fact that she reported her partner only after their separation, making no mention of the issue after her diagnosis or when police attended their home months earlier.

Points of law

The Court considered several points of law, including how to evaluate the available evidence. The judgement outlines that, generally, criminal law is not an appropriate tool where a person understands the risk; has as much control of the risk as the other party; consents to the act causing injury; and is injured as a result. These factors are comparable to a person deciding to have condomless sex with a partner they know has HIV, knowing that doing so can transmit HIV, with HIV transmission resulting.

Consequently, the Court found that instead of needing to focus legal analysis on the ‘presumption of innocence’ in relation to the accused, the appropriate principle to be tested was dubio pro reo, which tests whether ‘a credible doubt arises as to the veracity of the assertion of facts’. This principle means that, if ambiguity is found, the matter should be resolved in favour of the more lenient finding.

Ultimately, the court dismissed the charges of aggravated injury as the court found there was “a reasonable doubt as to the ignorance of the woman about the health status” of her ex-partner. The decision suggests that the woman could have deduced or may have known her partner had HIV.

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Miguel Angel Ramiro Avilés for making his analysis of the court decision so promptly available to HJN.

UNAIDS “extremely concerned” by new COVID-19 laws that target people living with or vulnerable to HIV

This week, echoing the concerns of the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee, amongst others, UNAIDS issued a strongly worded press release condemning governments for abusing the current state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic for overreaching their powers and enacting laws that target people who are living with, or vulnerable, to HIV.

“In times of crisis, emergency powers and agility are crucial; however, they cannot come at the cost of the rights of the most vulnerable,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “Checks and balances that are the cornerstone of the rule of law must be exercised in order to prevent misuse of such powers. If not, we may see a reversal of much of the progress made in human rights, the right to health and the AIDS response.”

Notably, UNAIDS singles out EU member states, Hungary and Poland.

In Hungary, a new bill has been introduced to remove the right of people to change their gender and name on official documents in order to ensure conformity with their gender identity, in clear breach of international human rights to legal recognition of gender identity.

In Poland, a fast-tracked amendment to the criminal law that increases the penalties for HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission to at least six months in prison and up to eight years in prison has been passed—a clear contravention of international human rights obligations to remove HIV-specific criminal laws.

In addition, UNAIDS condemns overly zealous policing that is especially targeting key populations already stigmatised, marginalised, and criminalised.

UNAIDS is also concerned by reports from a number of countries of police brutality in enforcing measures, using physical violence and harassment and targeting marginalized groups, including sex workers, people who use drugs and people who are homeless. The use of criminal law and violence to enforce movement restrictions is disproportionate and not evidence-informed. Such tactics have been known to be implemented in a discriminatory manner and have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable: people who for whatever reason cannot stay at home, do not have a home or need to work for reasons of survival.

They single out Uganda where “23 people connected with a shelter for providing services for the LGBTI community have been arrested—19 have been charged with a negligent act likely to spread infection or disease. Those 19 are being held in prison without access to a court, legal representation or medication.”

They also highlight Kenya as a model of cjvil society rapid response to human rights concerns following the release of an advisory note “calling for a focus on community engagement and what works for prevention and treatment rather than disproportionate and coercive approaches.”

The statement concludes:

While some rights may be limited during an emergency in order to protect public health and safety, such restrictions must be for a legitimate aim—in this case, to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. They must be proportionate to that aim, necessary, non-arbitrary, evidence-informed and lawful. Each order/law or action by law enforcement must also be reviewable by a court of law. Law enforcement powers must likewise be narrowly defined, proportionate and necessary.

UNAIDS urges all countries to ensure that any emergency laws and powers are limited to a reasonable period of time and renewable only through appropriate parliamentary and participatory processes. Strict limits on the use of police powers must be provided, along with independent oversight of police action and remedies through an accountability mechanism. Restrictions on rights relating to non-discrimination on the basis of HIV status, sexual and reproductive health, freedom of speech and gender identity detailed above do not assist with the COVID-19 response and are therefore not for a legitimate purpose. UNAIDS calls on countries to repeal any laws put in place that cannot be said to be for the legitimate aim of responding to or controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNAIDS recently produced a new guidance document that draws on key lessons from the response to the HIV epidemic: Rights in the time of COVID-19: lessons from HIV for an effective, community-led response.   

On Human Rights Day, please endorse the EECA Statement against HIV Criminalization

Today, December 10, 2019, Human Rights Day, National and Regional Networks and Civil Society Organizations on HIV Criminalization in the EECA Region are asking you to support the movement against HIV criminalization by endorsing the following Statement.

Download a pdf of the Statement in English or Russian.

Endorse the Statement in English here.  EПодпишите заявление на русском языке здесь.

On November 25-26, 2019, the “Decriminalization of HIV transmission in the EECA region: the role of civil society and advocacy tools” meeting was held in Minsk, Belarus, by the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS (EWNA), the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) and CO “100 PERCENT LIFE”. Activists representing national, regional and international networks discussed the current situation with HIV criminalization in the EECA region and options available to strengthen the movement in order to counter that HIV criminalization in the EECA region.

HIV criminalization is a global issue that undermines human rights and impedes the development of public health and, as a result, weakens the efforts to eradicate the HIV epidemic. An analysis of recent HIV criminalization cases shows that they do not reflect the demographics of local epidemics, and the likelihood of persecution is compounded by discrimination against marginalized groups on the basic of drug use, ethnicity, gender identity, immigration status, sex work and sexuality.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Joint United Nations Program on AIDS (UNAIDS), among others, declare that any use of criminal law against people living with HIV should be strictly limited to exceptional cases of intentional and malicious HIV transmission to another person and only where real harm occurred. However, the law and law enforcement practice go beyond this limitation in many countries.

According to HIV Justice Worldwide, Europe and Central Asia is the region with the second highest number of laws criminalizing HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission. 18 of the 19 countries where such laws have been adopted are in the EECA region. Many of them allow criminal prosecution for actions that do not pose a risk of HIV or pose a low risk only. These laws do not recognize condom use or low viral load as a means of protection against prosecution. They criminalize oral sex, individual breastfeeding cases, as well as bites, scratches, bites, or spitting. Such laws were developed in the times when efficient ARV therapy was not yet available and the HIV diagnosis was equated with a death sentence. The implementation of such laws is most often informed by myths, misconceptions on HIV transmission ways, and stigma against people living with HIV and vulnerable communities.

The laws of the EECA countries criminalizing the HIV transmission vary in their severity and in specific sanctions. The Russian Federation and Belarus are global and regional leaders in terms of the number of criminal cases related to HIV6. In Uzbekistan, a person living with HIV can be prosecuted regardless of whether his/her partner wants to initiate a criminal case. In 2019, a punishment was introduced in the law in Tajikistan for those who refuse to receive HIV therapy7. In many EECA countries, the punishment for any crime involving an HIV-positive person is exacerbated by the positive HIV status.

Concerned by the fact that prosecutions are not always informed by the best available scientific and medical evidence, 20 of the world’s leading HIV scientists have presented the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law.

The criminalization of HIV transmission is a growing human rights issue in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This fact is also confirmed by the first regional report, prepared in 2017 using the data of the communities of women living with HIV. The study was organized and conducted by EWNA with the support of GNP+ and HIV Justice Worldwide.

The study has shown that HIV criminalization is a gender issue10. The stories and cases documented in the report and other recently conducted studies illustrate that women are more likely to be persecuted, as they are often the first to become aware of their status through regular HIV testing during pregnancy, but they are less likely to safely disclose their HIV positive status to their partner due to gender inequality in the family, economic dependence and high levels of violence. In addition, women living with HIV are less likely to receive adequate legal assistance and to have competent representation in court. In their stories, women talk about violence, threats, and blackmail associated with their HIV-positive status. The laws adopted were designed to protect women from HIV. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the reality as HIV criminalization makes women more vulnerable to violence and structural disparities. HIV criminalization increases the vulnerability of women to deprivation of parental rights, property loss, and poverty.

EECA activists make essential efforts to advocate for the decriminalization of HIV infection. Thus, the active advocacy work conducted by the community of people living with HIV pushed Belarus to adopt an important legislative amendment: the HIV-positive partner should be exempt from criminal liability if he or she has timely warned the HIV-negative partner about HIV and the latter has voluntarily agreed to take actions, which created a risk of infection. However this step alone is not sufficient to solve the issue of HIV criminalization.

We call attention of the EECA countries to the fact that in a society with low stigma and discrimination, people are more likely to be voluntarily tested for HIV and, learning about their status, begin ARV treatment.

We urge communities of people living with HIV and other criminalized and marginalized communities, in particular sex workers, LGBT people, people who use drugs, to unite and take a consolidated position to counter HIV criminalization, presenting a united front against HIV stigma and discrimination embedded in the law.

We urge governments and parliamentarians to use general law to prevent HIV transmission in the harm to health context and, instead of applying criminal law in any cases other than actual infection transmission by malicious intent, take steps to encourage people to be tested, take ARV treatment, communicate their HIV status and have safe sex without fear of stigma, discrimination and violence. This can be achieved by adopting and applying anti-discrimination laws and organizing public information campaigns to dispel myths about HIV, as such campaigns are evidence-based and are led by people living with HIV.

We urge prosecution agencies and prosecutors, to use scientific evidence and evidence-based medicine, in particular the evidence included in the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law, in pre-trial and trial proceedings, in order to limit or prevent abuse of criminal prosecution in cases of allegations of HIV transmission or exposure or in cases of non-disclosure of HIV status.

We urge the media to stop demonizing people living with HIV, presenting us as criminals and as sources of infection. We request the media to consider HIV related issues from the perspective of human rights and use facts and evidence-based medicine while covering such issues.

We encourage donors to invest in communities and advocates opposing HIV criminalization, which undermines human rights and public health.

Canada: Justice Committee report recommends wide-ranging reforms to HIV criminalisation, including removing HIV non-disclosure from sexual assault law

Yesterday, the House of Commons Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights released a ground-breaking report “The Criminalization of HIV Non-Disclosure in Canada” recommending that the Government of Canada works with each of the Canadian provinces and territories to end the use of sexual assault law to prosecute allegations of HIV non-disclosure.

According to a press release issued by our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network:

People living with HIV currently face imprisonment for aggravated sexual assault and a lifetime designation as a sex offender for not disclosing their HIV status to sexual partners, even in cases where there is little or even zero risk of transmission. This means a person engaging in consensual sex that causes no harm, and poses little or no risk of harm, can be prosecuted and convicted like a violent rapist. We welcome the Committee’s recognition of this unjust reality and their call to end the use of sexual assault laws. We and our allies have spent many years advocating for this critical change.

The report also recommends that Canada limits HIV criminalisation to actual transmission only. The Legal Network notes:

But we must go further: criminal prosecution should be limited to cases of intentional transmission as recommended by the UN’s expert health and human rights bodies. Parliament should heed such guidance. Criminal charges and punishments are the most serious of society’s tools; their use should be limited and a measure of last resort.

However, one of the recommendations that the Legal Network takes issue with is the recommendation to broaden any new law to include other infectious diseases.

Infectious diseases are a public health issue and should be treated as such. We strongly disagree with the recommendation to extend the criminal law to other infectious diseases. We will not solve the inappropriate use of the criminal law against people living with HIV by punishing more people and more health conditions.

Currently, there is a patchwork of inconsistent approaches across each province and territory. Only three provinces — OntarioBritish Columbia and Alberta — have a formal policy in place or have directed Crown prosecutors to limit prosecutions of HIV non-disclosure, and they all fall short of putting an end to unjust prosecutions.

A December 2018 federal directive to limit HIV criminalisation, which solely applies to Canada’s territories, is already having some impact — in January 2019 it led to Crown prosecutors in the Northwest Territories dropping a wrongful sexual assault charge against a man living with HIV in Yellowstone. “We followed the directive and chose not to prosecute,” said Crown attorney Alex Godfrey.

Other positive recommendations in the report include:

  • An immediate review of the cases of all individuals who have been convicted for not disclosing their HIV status and who would not have been prosecuted under the new standards set out in the recommendations of the Committee.
  • These standards must reflect “the most recent medical science regarding HIV and its modes of transmission and the criminal law should only apply when there is actual transmission having regard to the realistic possibility of transmission. At this point of time, HIV non-disclosure should never be prosecuted if (1) the infected individual has an undetectable viral load (less than 200 copies per millilitre of blood); (2) condoms are used; (3) the infected individual’s partner is on PrEP or (4) the type of sexual act (such as oral sex) is one where there is a negligible risk of transmission.”
  • And, until a new law is drafted and enacted (which is only likely to happen if the current Liberal Government is re-elected in October), there should be implementation of a common prosecutorial directive across Canada to end criminal prosecutions of HIV non-disclosure, except in cases where there is actual transmission.

The report also recommends that any new legislation should be drafted in consultation with “all relevant stakeholders including the HIV/AIDS community”, which the Legal Network also welcomed.

The report is the result of a study of the ‘Criminalization of Non-Disclosure of HIV Status that ran between April and June 2019. Many Canadian experts testified as key witnesses to help MPs gain insight into why Canada’s current approach is wrong. HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE also submitted a brief to the committee, providing international context to Canada’s extremely severe approach to HIV non-disclosure.

The Legal Network concludes:

The next step is actual law reform. The report makes clear that change to the criminal law is needed. Any new legal regime must avoid the harms and stigma that have tainted the law these past 25 years.

Kenya: Positive Justice campaign launched today to challenge unjust HIV-specific law

Today, on International Human Rights Day, the National Empowerment Network of People living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK) and the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN) have launched the Positive Justice campaign to finally end HIV criminalisation in Kenya.

Today's Positive Justice launch (photo: @KELIN via Twitter)
Today’s Positive Justice campaign launch (photo: @KELINKenya via Twitter)

In 2015, in Aids Law Project v Attorney General and Others [2015] the High Court of Kenya declared section 24 of the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Act unconstitutional and suspended the law. The High Court ruling focused on the absence of a definition for “sexual contact”, holding that it is impossible to determine what acts were prohibited. It also found the provision does not meet the standards for a justifiable limitation of the constitutional right to privacy.

However, Section 26 of the Sexual Offences Act (2006) still contains vague and overly broad provisions that have resulted in a number of recent arrests and unjust prosecutions for biting (March 2018), breastfeeding (September 2018), and alleged non-disclosure (December 2018).

Today’s Positive Justice campaign launch (photo: @KELINKenya via Twitter)
Today’s Positive Justice campaign launch (photo: @KELINKenya via Twitter)

Consequently, today KELIN have filed a petition asking the High Court in Nairobi to strike down as unconstitutional Section 26 of the Sexual Offences Act on the grounds that it discriminates against people living with HIV, women, and the poor, and violates a number of fundamental human rights.

Download and read Petition 447 – which will be heard on 4th March 2019 for directions  – at this link: http://www.kelinkenya.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Petition-447-of-2018-Final.pdf

According to a KELIN press release published today

The prosecuting authority’s interpretation of Section 26 of the Sexual Offences Act, as demonstrated by the prosecutions of several of the PLHIV challenging the law, effectively makes it a crime for a woman with HIV to birth and raise children. The prevailing interpretation also effectively criminalizes marriage between a person who has HIV and a person who does not.

“Laws that make criminals of people simply for having HIV ignore science. People who are on HIV treatment and are virally suppressed are not infectious. The key to a successful HIV response and ending AIDS is making sure everyone with HIV knows their status and gets on treatment. These laws make that impossible. Thousands of discordant couples and breastfeeding mothers living all over Kenya run the risk of being arrested and charged under this provision if they come forward for HIV testing,” noted M.A, the fourth petitioner and a representative of the Discordant Couples in Kenya.

HIV criminalization laws are also notorious for abuse and arbitrary enforcement. “Such abuse will always be targeted at persons living with, vulnerable to or believed to be living with HIV whether or not their actions were culpable and whether or not their actions exposed another to the risk of contracting HIV,” cautioned Mr. Nelson Otwoma, the Director at the National Empowerment Network of People living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK).

It is for this reason that five people living with HIV and stakeholders working in HIV response came together to file the petition and launch the campaign dubbed Positive Justice. The campaign seeks to raise awareness on the negative effects of enforcement of the law on PLHIV, and engage relevant stakeholders including the media, legislature, judiciary, law enforcers, and Ministry of Health in advocating for the rights of people living with HIV.

“This petition will not only safeguard the rights of those living with and affected by HIV and other sexually transmitted infections but also help alleviate the discrimination and stigma they face and help Kenya remain on track in achieving the 2020 UN AIDS Fast Track targets in ending AIDS,’ said Mr. Allan Maleche, the Executive Director at KELIN.

Mexico: Supreme Court finds Veracruz law criminalising ‘wilful transmission’ of HIV and STIs to be unconstitutional

Following a Constitutional challenge initiated in February 2016 by the Multisectoral Group on HIV / AIDS and STIs of Veracruz and the National Commission on Human Rights, and supported by HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice yesterday found by eight votes (out of 11) that the amendment to Article 158 of the Penal Code of the State of Veracruz to be invalid as it violates a number of fundamental rights: equality before the law; personal freedom; and non-discrimination.

The full ruling is not yet available, but according to a news story published yesterday in 24 Horas.

…it was pointed out that the criminal offense is “highly inaccurate” because it does not establish what or what is a serious illness, besides it is not possible to verify the fraud in the transmission [and] that although the measure pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the right to health, especially for women and girls, the measure did not exceed the analysis of need because it was not ideal and optimal for the protection of that purpose, especially as [Veracruz] already criminalised the ‘willful putting at risk of contagion of serious illnesses’…

Additionally, Letra S reports,

The Minister President of the Court, Luis María Aguilar Morales, took up the recommendations of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV / AIDS and the Oslo Declaration on HIV Criminalisation, regarding the criminalization of HIV, and argued that this article left to the will of the investigating authority to decide which diseases will be considered as serious and which will not, going against the principle of legality, which implies that the crimes cannot be indeterminate or ambiguous.

In this case, the President said, the article did not establish whether STIs are only those considered serious or any, regardless of their severity. In turn, the justices determined that the resolution has a retroactive effect, that is, that those persons tried under the offense established by this article, the resolutions are invalidated.

 

Background

On August 4, 2015, the Congress of the State of Veracruz approved an amendment to Article 158 of the Criminal Code in order to add the term Sexually Transmitted Infections, which included HIV and HPV. 

It provided for a penalty ranging from 6 months to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to 50 days of salary for anyone who “willfully” infects another person with a disease via sexual transmission.

The amendment, proposed by the deputy Mónica Robles Barajas of the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico, said the legislation was aimed at protecting women who can be infected by their husbands. “It’s hard for a woman to tell her husband to use a condom,” she said in an interview with the Spanish-language online news site Animal Político.

On February 16, 2016, the National Human Rights Commission responded to the request of the Multisectoral Group on HIV / AIDS and STIs of the state of Veracruz and other civil society organizations, and filed an action of unconstitutionality against the reform in the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, which it said does not fulfill its objective of preventing the transmission of sexual infections to women and girls, but rather creates discrimination of people living with HIV and other STIs.

In October 2016, following a press conference at the National Commission on Human Rights (pictured above) that generated a great deal of media coverage, including a TV report, HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE delivered a letter to the Mexican Supreme Court highlighting that a law such as that of Veracruz does not protect women against HIV but rather increases their risk and places women living with HIV, especially those in positions vulnerable and abusive relationships, at disproportionate risk of both proseuction and violence.

In October 2017, the first Spanish-language ‘HIV Is Not A Crime’ meeting took place in Mexico City, supported by the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition where a new Mexican Network against HIV Criminalisation was established.

The Network issued a Statement yesterday which concluded:

We applaud the declaration of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, which gives us the reason for the unconstitutionality request, shared with the National Commission of Human Rights; For this reason, we suggest to the deputies of the Congresses of the State that before legislating, they should be trained in the subject and that they do not forget that their obligation is to defend Human Rights, not to violate them.

Finally, the Mexican Network against the Criminalization of HIV recognizes that there are still many ways to go and many battles to fight, but we can not stop celebrating this important achievement.

 

Edwin Bernard (HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE) and Patricia Ponce (Grupo Multisectorial Veracruz) presenting the letter to Supreme Court of the Nation, Mexico City.
Edwin Bernard (HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE) and Patricia Ponce (Grupo Multisectorial Veracruz) presenting the letter to Supreme Court of the Nation, Mexico City.

Read the English text of the HIV JUSTICE WORLWIDE amicus letter below.

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE

This is a letter of support from HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE[1] to Grupo Multi VIH de Veracruz / National Commission of Human Rightswho are challenging Article 158 of Penal Code of the Free and Independent State of Veracruz that criminalises ‘intentional’ exposure to sexually transmitted infections or other serious diseases, on the grounds that this law violates a number of fundamental rights: equality before the law; personal freedom; and non-discrimination.

As a coalition of organisations working to end the overly broad use of criminal laws against people living with HIV, we respectfully share Grupo Multi VIH de Veracruz’s concerns around Article 158 which potentially stigmatises people with sexually transmitted diseases and criminalises ‘intentional’ exposure to sexually transmitted infections (potentially including HIV) or other serious diseases.

All legal and policy responses to HIV (and other STIs) should be based on the best available evidence, the objectives of HIV prevention, care, treatment and support, and respect for human rights. There is no evidence that criminalising HIV ‘exposure’ has HIV prevention benefits. However, there are serious concerns that the trend towards criminalisation is causing considerable harm.

Numerous human rights and public health concerns associated with the criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure and/or potential or perceived exposure and/or transmission have led the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), [2] the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health,[3]  the Global Commission on HIV and the Law[4]  and the the World Health Organization[5],  to urge governments to limit the use of the criminal law to extremely rare cases of intentional transmission of HIV (i.e., where a person knows his or her HIV-positive status, acts with the intention to transmit HIV, and does in fact transmit it). They have also recommended that prosecutions [for intentional transmission] “be pursued with care and require a high standard of evidence and proof.” [6]

In 2013, UNAIDS produced a comprehensive Guidance Note to assist lawmakers understand critical legal, scientific and medical issues relating to the use of the law in this way.[7] In particular, UNAIDS guidance stipulates that:

  • “[I]ntent to transmit HIV cannot be presumed or solely derived from knowledge of positive HIV status and/or non-disclosure of that status.
  • Intent to transmit HIV cannot be presumed or solely derived from engaging in unprotected sex, having a baby without taking steps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, or by sharing drug injection equipment.
  • Proof of intent to transmit HIV in the context of HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission should at least involve (i) knowledge of positive HIV status, (ii) deliberate action that poses a significant risk of transmission, and (iii) proof that the action is done for the purpose of infecting someone else.
  • Active deception regarding positive HIV-status can be considered an element in establishing intent to transmit HIV, but it should not be dispositive on the issue. The context and circumstances in which the alleged deception occurred—including the mental state of the person living with HIV and the reasons for the alleged deception— should be taken into consideration when determining whether intent to transmit HIV has been proven to the required criminal law standard.”

Moreover, where criminal liability is extended to cases that do not involve actual transmission of HIV (contrary to the position urged by UNAIDS and other experts), such liability should, at the very bare minimum, be limited to acts involving a “significant risk” of HIV transmission. In particular, UNAIDS guidance contains explicit recommendations against prosecutions in cases where a condom was used, where other forms of safer sex were practiced (including oral sex and non-penetrative sex), or where the person living with HIV was on effective HIV treatment or had a low viral load. Being under treatment or using other forms of protections not only show an absence of malicious intent but also dramatically reduces the risks of transmission to a level close to zero. Indeed, a person under effective antiretroviral therapy poses –  at most – a negligible risk of transmission[8] and is therefore no different from someone who is HIV-negative.

Moreover, there is growing body of evidence[9] that such laws that actually or effective criminalise HIV non-disclosure, potential or perceived exposure, or transmission, negatively impact the human rights of people living with HIV due to:

  • selective and/or arbitrary investigations/prosecutions that has a disproportionate impact on racial and sexual minorities, and on women.
  • confusion and fear over obligations under the law;
  • the use of threats of allegations triggering prosecution as a means of abuse or retaliation against a current or former partner;
  • improper and insensitive police investigations that can result in inappropriate disclosure, leading to high levels of distress and in some instances, to loss of employment and housing, social ostracism, deportation (and hence also possibly loss of access to adequate medical care in some instances) for migrants living with HIV in some cases;
  • limited access to justice, including as a result of inadequately informed and competent legal representation;
  • sentencing and penalties that are often vastly disproportionate to any potential or realised harm, including lengthy terms of imprisonment, lifetime or years-long designation as a sex offender (with all the negative consequences for employment, housing, social stigma, etc.);
  • stigmatising media reporting, including names, addresses and photographs of people with HIV, including those not yet found guilty of any crime but merely subject to allegations.

In addition, there is no evidence that criminalising HIV (or other sexually transmitted infections) help protect women and girls from infections.  

Women are often the first in a relationship to know their HIV status due to routine HIV testing during pregnancy, and are less likely to be able to safely disclose their HIV-positive status to their partner as a result of inequality in power relations, economic dependency, and high levels of gender-based violence within relationships.[10]

Such a law does nothing to protect women from the coercion or violence that effectively increases the risk of HIV transmission. On the contrary, such laws place women living with HIV, especially those in vulnerable positions and abusive relationships, at increased risks of both prosecution and violence.

Some evidence suggests that fear of prosecution may deter people, especially those from communities highly vulnerable to acquiring HIV, from getting tested and knowing their status, because many laws only apply for those who are aware of their positive HIV status. [11] HIV criminalisation can also deter access to care and treatment, undermining counselling and the relationship between people living with HIV and healthcare professionals because medical records can be used as evidence in court. [12]

Finally, there is evidence[13] of an additional negative public health impact of such laws in terms of:

  • increasing HIV-related stigma, which has an adverse effect on a person’s willingness to learn about, or discuss, HIV; and
  • undermining the importance of personal knowledge and responsibility (correlative to degree of sexual autonomy) as a key component of an HIV prevention package, when instead prevention of HIV within a consensual sexual relationship is – and should be perceived as – a shared responsibility.

We hope that the Mexico Supreme Court of Justice takes our concerns and all of this evidence into account when considering the Constitutional Challenge.

Yours faithfully,

Edwin J Bernard, Global Co-ordinator, HIV Justice Network

on behalf of all HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners: AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA); Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network; Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+); HIV Justice Network; International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW); Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA); and Sero Project (SERO).

[1] HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE is an initiative made up of global, regional, and national civil society organisations working together to end overly broad HIV criminalisation. The founding partners are: AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA); Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network; Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+); HIV Justice Network; International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW); Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA); and Sero Project (SERO).  The initiative is also supported by Amnesty International, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, UNAIDS and UNDP.

[2] UNAIDS. Policy Brief: Criminalisation of HIV Transmission, August 2008; UNAIDS. Ending overly-broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission: Critical scientific, medical and legal considerations, May 2013.

[3] Anand Grover. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, June 2010.

[4] Global Commission on HIV and the Law. HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights & Health, July 2012.

[5] WHO. Sexual health, human rights and the law. June 2015.

[6] Global Commission on HIV and the Law. HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights & Health, July 2012.

[7] UNAIDS. Ending overly-broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission: Critical scientific, medical and legal considerations, May 2013.

[8] A.J. Rodger et al., “Sexual activity without condoms and risk of HIV transmission in serodifferent couples when the HIV-positive partner is using suppressive antiretroviral therapy,” JAMA 316, 2 (12 July 2016): pp. 171–181.

[9]op cit. Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

[10] Athena Network. 10 Reasons Why Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission Harms Women. 2009.

[11] O’Byrne P et al. HIV criminal prosecutions and public health: an examination of the empirical research. Med Humanities 2013;39:85-90 doi:10.1136/medhum-2013-010366

[12]Ibid.

[13]Op cit. Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

Important new resource, SALC’s HIV Criminalisation Defence Case Compendium, published this week

An important new resource for lawyers defending clients and working on strategic litigation was published by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) this week. SALC is one of the newest members of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee.

The HIV Criminalisation Defence Case Compendium was developed to accompany a four-day training for lawyers on HIV and TB criminalisation, due to take place in Johannesburg, South Africa, later this month.

The Compendium aims to provide lawyers with a tool to successfully defend people living with HIV who are being prosecuted for alleged HIV non-disclosure, exposure, or transmission. It catalogues and analyses criminal cases from across the world where “strong defence arguments have resulted in an acquittal or reduced penalty”.

Cases range from prosecutions for spitting or biting to the landmark 2016 Malawi case of a woman successfully released on appeal after having been sentenced for breastfeeding.

To find pertinent cases quickly and effectively, the Compendium is split into three parts:

  • The first section outlines the key issues raised in the judgement, such as proof of intent, and classifies the cases accordingly in an easy to navigate table format.
  • The second section, organised by country, catalogues the categories of argument raised by the defence.
  • The third section summarises the facts of each case and the Court decisions, highlighting the key points.

The Lawyers for HIV and TB Justice: Strategic Litigation, Legal Defence and Advocacy Training will be streamed live on The Southern Africa Litigation Centre Facebook Page between 20-22 February.

The Compendium can be downloaded from the SALC website and is included as the newest resource in the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE toolkit.

 

Brazil: Activists celebrate as ‘deliberate HIV transmission’ law amendment is withdrawn

Yesterday, news broke that populist Congressman, Pompeo de Mattos, has withdrawn an amendment originally proposed in 2015 to make ‘deliberate’ HIV transmission a ‘heinous crime’.

The amendment, Bill No. 198, 2015, would have added to the list of heinous crimes – which currently includes murder, extortion, rape, child exploitation and spreading an epidemic that results in death – those who “transmit and infect consciously and deliberately others with the AIDS virus. (sic)”.

According to Brazil’s AIDS News Agency

In Brazil, intentional transmission, that is, with intent, is already considered a crime. Articles 130 and 131 of the Penal Code already provide for imprisonment for those who infect others. Anyone who exposes someone to a venereal disease through sexual intercourse can be jailed for three months to a year or receive a fine. If the person intentionally wants to transmit the disease, the penalty is imprisonment, from one to four years, and fine.

“The initiative to criminalize HIV-positive people does not contribute to the fight against prejudice and discrimination, and it also throws the responsibility of prevention on the infected person,” says a statement released on Thursday by Foaesp Of the State of São Paulo).

In this same document, the Forum thanked Mr Pompeo for his request to withdraw from the PL. “We are now waiting for the House Board to abide by the request and file the bill, and we will also be careful that no other parliamentarian has a similar initiative.”

Activists from all over Brazil have celebrated the Bill’s withdrawal. Any new proposal cannot be considered by the current parliament and now must wait until after elections, scheduled for October 2018.

Since 2015, PLHIV networks, civil society organisations, the Department of STDs, AIDS and Viral Hepatitis of the Ministry of Health, and a number UN agencies – includng UNAIDS and UNFPA – had all pressured Congress to withdraw the bill.

Update (September 4th).  A press release by the Department of STDs, AIDS and Viral Hepatitis of the Ministry of Health notes:

The director of the Department of STDs, AIDS and Viral Hepatitis (DIAHV), Adele Benzaken, called the federal MPs Érica Kokay (PT-DF), member of the Family Social Security Commission (CCSF) and Coordinator of the Joint Parliamentary Front to Combat STDs, HIV , and AIDS – and Laura Carneiro (PMDB-RJ) and Deputy Pompeo de Mattos to thank them for their support against the procedure of PL 198/15. “The effort of these parliamentarians was essential to educate their colleagues in the House to reassess that Brazil is a reference in the treatment of HIV / AIDS and that this will not help the Brazilian response at all. The director of DIAHV also highlighted the mobilisation made by civil society and the support of the Brazilian Office of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV / AIDS (UNAIDS) that she said were key to the outcome achieved with the filing request.

On July 3rd, the United Nations Expanded Thematic Group on HIV / AIDS (WG / UNAIDS) chaired by UNFPA, met to articulate opposition to the Bill.

For the UNFPA representative in Brazil, Jaime Nadal, the bill goes against the ideals and proposals of the United Nations regarding the HIV / AIDS epidemic. Criminalizing HIV transmission, in addition to reinforcing the stigmatization of people living with the virus, may discourage people from undergoing testing and treatment, since they would be under threat of becoming criminals, he said.The bill ignores the scientific advances in HIV / AIDS, which prove that antiretroviral treatments reduce the chances of transmitting the virus in sexual intercourse by up to 96%. “Many countries around the world are reforming their laws criminalising HIV transmission,” said Nadal, adding that the bill goes against the global trend.

UNAIDS Director in Brazil, Georgiana Braga-Orillard, reinforced the speech of the UNFPA representative. According to her, the bill further vulnerabilises populations with a positive serological status, since “it considers the more than 800 thousand people living with HIV in Brazil as potential criminals.”

In a technical note, UNAIDS outlined six counter-arguments to the bill: it penalizes the most vulnerable; it promotes fear and discrimination; it favours the selective application of the law; it disregards the scientific evidence on HIV; it compromises privacy and confidentiality, and it will make Brazil lose its leading role in the response to HIV / AIDS.

A public meeting with the Congressman, scheduled for July 4th, was cancelled at the last minute.  However, the letter of withdrawal, although only publicly released yesterday, was dated May 11th.

I request you, pursuant to art. 104 of the Internal Rules of the Chamber of Deputies, the withdrawal of the Bill of Law No. 198 of 2015, which "makes a heinous crime the deliberate transmission of the AIDS virus."
Translation: I request you, pursuant to art. 104 of the Internal Rules of the Chamber of Deputies, the withdrawal of the Bill of Law No. 198 of 2015, which “makes a heinous crime the deliberate transmission of the AIDS virus.”

Nevertheless, prosecutions under general laws continue.

In July, a newspaper reported that a 43 year-old heterosexual man was charged with serious bodily injury in a Rio de Janeiro court for ‘attempting to infect two women with HIV’ by having sex without a condom. 

In an interview with the Rio newspaper Extra , the man admitted that he was HIV-positive and [allegedly] transmitted HIV to the women, but denied that he had had sex without a condom with the intention of infecting his partners.

The case continues.