Belarus: Welcoming important developments in the fight against unjust HIV criminalisation

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE along with our partners at The Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS and Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) welcome this week’s announcement of an amendment to Article 157 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, which finally allows consent following disclosure to sexual partner as a defence. Whilst recognizing there is still a long way to go to remove all unjust criminal laws against people living with HIV in Belarus, we congratulate our partners and colleagues in Belarus People PLUS for this achievement!

Today, Parliamentarians of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus adopted in the second reading three bills, one of which was the law “On introducing amendments to some codes of the Republic of Belarus”. Among other changes, an amendment was adopted to article 157 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (one of the most draconian HIV-specific criminal laws in the world), which now allows that people who have warned their partners will no longer be held criminally responsible for potential or perceived HIV exposure or transmission.

Read Yana’s story on GNP+’s website

Until today, Article 157 states that people living with HIV are totally criminally liable for potential or perceived HIV exposure or transmission, even if the so-called injured party had no complaints against their partner, knew about the risks and consented. Prosecutions took place because infectious disease doctors informed police and many people were convicted (read Yana’s story here)

In 2017, 130 criminal cases were initiated under Article 157 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, with another 48 in the first half of 2018. Now, it will be possible to revisit those cases.

Anatoly Leshenok, representative of the NGO, People Plus states: “The adopted changes are only the first step in achieving our goal of decriminalising HIV transmission. According to information received from the department for drafting bills, other, more fundamental changes to Article 157 of the Criminal Code of Belarus have not been approved. It is necessary to continue to work with these State structures and with public opinion in order to form a more tolerant attitude towards HIV-positive people. But those changes that have been adopted today –  that’s a success for our team! ”

Anatoly Leshenok. Photo: UNAIDS Country Office in Belarus
Anatoly Leshenok. Photo: UNAIDS Country Office in Belarus

After approval by the Council of the Republic and the President, the amendments will make it possible to revisit previous sentences of the courts, and improve lives of people that were broken previously, as well it provide opportunity now and in the future for people living with HIV in serodiscordant partnerships to plan their lives without worrying if they are criminals every time they have sex.

 

Livestream: Beyond Blame – Challenging HIV Criminalisation: Rapporteurs and Closing (HJN, 2018)

Welcome to BEYOND BLAME – Challenging HIV Criminalisation, live from De Balie in Amsterdam, 23 July 2018.

15:4516:00 Rapporteur reports from the breakout sessions Lead rapporteur: Sally Cameron (HIV Justice Network)

16:0016:30 Group discussion: Next Steps Facilitators: Naina Khanna (Positive Women’s Network – USA) and Lynette Mabote (ARASA)

Livestream: Beyond Blame – Challenging HIV Criminalisation: Building Bridges Across Movements: Linking HIV Criminalisation With the Criminalisation of Abortion, Drug Use, Gender Expression, Sexuality and Sex Work (HJN, 2018)

Welcome by Luisa Cabal (UNAIDS) Moderator: Susana Fried (CREA and Global Health Justice Partnership) With: Ricki Kgositau (AIDS Accountability International), Oriana López Uribe (BALANCE / RESURJ), Nthabiseng Mokoena (ARASA), Niluka Perera (Youth Voices Count), Jaime Todd-Gher (Amnesty International), Kay Thi Win (Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

Livestream: Beyond Blame – Challenging HIV Criminalisation: Plenary 2 (HJN, 2018)

Welcome to BEYOND BLAME – Challenging HIV Criminalisation, live from De Balie in Amsterdam, 23 July 2018.

11:2012:10 What About Human Rights? The Benefits and Pitfalls of Using Science in Our Advocacy to End HIV Criminalisation Facilitator: Laurel Sprague (UNAIDS) With: Chris Beyrer (John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), Edwin Cameron (Constitutional Court of South Africa), Richard Elliott (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network), Lynette Mabote (ARASA), Paula Munderi (IAPAC)

12:1013:00 Women and HIV Criminalisation: Feminist Perspectives Facilitator: Naina Khanna (Positive Women’s Network – USA) With: Sarai Chisala-Tempelhoff (Women’s Lawyers Association, Malawi), Michaela Clayton (ARASA), Kristin Dunn (AIDS Saskatoon), Deon Haywood (Women With A Vision)

New report from the Global Commission on HIV and the Law states that discrimination and punitive laws hamper the global HIV response

Bad laws and discrimination undermining AIDS response

AMSTERDAM, July 22 – Discrimination against vulnerable and marginalized communities is seriously hampering the global effort to tackle the HIV epidemic according to a groundbreaking new report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Despite more people than ever before having access to antiretroviral treatment, the new report emphasizes that governments must take urgent action to ensure rights-based responses to HIV and its co-infections (tuberculosis and viral hepatitis). The new report comes on the eve of the biannual global AIDS conference, which is taking place in Amsterdam.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law – an independent commission convened by UNDP on behalf of UNAIDS – operates with the goal of catalyzing progress around laws and policies that impact people affected by HIV. In 2012, the Commission highlighted how laws stand in the way of progress on AIDS while citing how to institutionalize laws and policies that promote human rights and health. The 2018 supplement to the Commission’s original report assesses new challenges and opportunities for driving progress on HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis through evidence and rights-based laws and policies.

“Progress on tackling the AIDS epidemic shows that when we work together we can save lives and empower those at risk,” said Mandeep Dhaliwal, the Director of Health and HIV at UNDP. “However, the new report is also a warning that unless governments get serious about tackling bad laws, the overall AIDS response will continue to be undermined and we will fail those who are left behind.”

For the past six years, the Global Commission has made clear how marginalized groups are continually left behind in the global HIV response. Men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, transgender people and sex workers face stigma, discrimination and violence that prevents their ability to receive care, and LGBT populations are still under attack in many countries around the world.

Young women and adolescent girls are also uniquely affected by HIV and are not receiving adequate care. In 2015, adolescent girls and young women comprised 60 percent of those aged 15 to 24 years living with HIV and almost the same percentage of new HIV infections were among this cohort. Sexual and reproductive health care, including HIV testing and treatment, have consistently been kept out of the hands of the women and girls who need them.

“Global politics are changing, and repressive laws and policies are on the rise,” said Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia. “In recent years, political trends have negatively impacted the global HIV response: civic space has shrunk, migrants don’t have access to health care, and funding has dropped.”

The report warns that shrinking civil society space due to government crackdowns is hampering the HIV response as marginalized groups are seeing key health services cut off. The fight against HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis will only be won if civil society is empowered and able to provide services, mobilize for justice and hold governments accountable.

“In the wake of the ongoing global refugee crisis, borders have tightened and access to health services has been restricted for millions of migrants – exactly the opposite of what is needed,” said Dr. Shereen El Feki, Vice-Chair of the Commission. “Condemning people who have left their homes to seek safety strips them of their human rights and in the process increases their vulnerability to HIV and its co-infections.”

Refugees and asylum seekers are often at high risk of HIV and overlapping infections like tuberculosis, but harsh laws restrict health care access. Laws must change to ensure that everyone, no matter where they are from, can receive quality health services. The world is also still off track in funding responses to HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis: in 2015 – the same year that countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its pledge to leave no one behind – donor funding for AIDS fell by 13 percent. Sadly the small uptick in donor funding for HIV in 2017 is at best an anomaly.

Despite these challenges, UNDP together with its UN and civil society partners have helped 89 countries revise their laws to protect people’s health and rights since 2012. Successes include:

·         HIV criminalization laws have been repealed in Ghana, Greece, Honduras, Kenya, Malawi, Mongolia, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and at least two US states.

·         Leaders are taking steps to address gender inequities to bolster the rights of women and girls who are disproportionately affected by HIV: Tunisia recently passed a law to end violence against women in public and private life, and Jordan and Lebanon have strengthened legislation on marital rape.

·         Access to health care is being prioritized with emphasis on emerging illnesses that target people vulnerable to HIV, including Portugal instituting universal access to hepatitis C treatment in 2015, and France following suit in 2016. A court ruling in India led the Government of India to change its policy on who is eligible for tuberculosis treatment.

·         Governments are taking steps to protect the rights of vulnerable groups: Canada, Colombia, Jamaica, Norway and Uruguay have decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis and Jamaica erased the criminal records of low-level drug offenders.

The success and sustainability of the global HIV response will be determined in large part by urgent action on laws and policies. The Commission calls on governments and leaders around the world to institute effective laws and policies that protect and promote the rights of people affected by HIV and its co-infections. Since 2012, there have been positive changes in transforming laws and policies, and advancements in science that make it possible to further accelerate progress. The future will be determined by legal environments that drive universal health and human dignity.

Media contact:

In Geneva: Sarah Bel, Communications Specialist, sarah.bel@undp.org, Tel: +41 79 934 1117

In New York: Sangita Khadka, Communications Specialist, UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, sangita.khadka@undp.org; +1 212 906 5043

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law is an independent body, convened by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of the Programme Coordinating Board of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Additional information is available at www.hivlawcommission.org.

Published in UNDP website on July 22, 2018

FOCUS ON EECA: Is Belarus the worst country in the world for HIV criminalisation?

Photo: Representatives of People PLUS at the Gomel Regional Court
Our EECA hub, the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS (EWNA), part of the GNP+ family, found that between January 2015 and June 2017, 128 criminal cases had been prosecuted under Article 157, Belarus’ overly broad HIV-specific criminal law.

The highest number of cases in the country were reported in the Gomel region. Between 2012 and 2016, 38 cases were reported. But in the first half of 2017 alone, at least 50 cases had been filed before the courts.

The vast majority of the cases involve people in heterosexual relationships. The law is understood and applied in a way that a person living with HIV not only has a duty to disclose, but also a duty to not place another person at risk of acquiring HIV. While some cases brought to the courts involve allegations of non-disclosure, a large number of cases are between couples of different HIV status, where both parties were aware of HIV in the relationship, and the HIV-negative partner consented to sex.

Charges are laid by the state and are regardless of the partner’s desire to prosecute and regardless of whether protective measures were taken by the person living with HIV, such as using a condom or being on treatment with a low or undetectable viral load. 

Cases typically commence when health care providers hear that an HIV-negative person is in a sexual relationship with a person living with HIV, or when a pregnancy is involved. In order to be charged, all that is required is for the person living with HIV should know their HIV status and be registered with the state for HIV services.

As per community reports, people living with HIV are not getting the proper treatment, care and support that they need because of the legal barriers that Article 157 creates in the lives of people living with HIV.

In practice, the law in Belarus keeps people who learn anonymously of their HIV status from accessing treatment, education and counselling because people in Belarus can know about their HIV status and not be registered. Without being formally aware of the presence of HIV, then a person can avoid is not criminally liable. When people face the threat of criminalisation, ignorance of the diagnosis of HIV can be the most effective legal protection. 

Crucially, people who are not registered as living with HIV with the state do not receive antiretroviral treatment and therefore endanger themselves and their sexual partners.

Building the case against criminalisation on the ground

People PLUS is a public association representing people living with HIV in Belarus.

It provides counselling to clients/patients – helping them to “correctly” answer questions and complain against forced examination during epidemiological investigations from the Ministry of Health, as well as the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This has been a positive experience with, over the past month, two refusals to initiate criminal cases.

In the Gomel region – where the highest number of cases under Article 157 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus are being reported – People PLUS have held meetings with the heads of the Epidemiological Department – the “sources” of initiating criminal cases in the region.

An agreement was reached, that without violating guidelines (according to a Ministerial Agreement the Epidemiological Department has to send cases of transmission to the Ministry of Internal Affairs for further investigation), the people under investigation will be immediately provided with People PLUS contacts in order to obtain advice on how to protect themselves during an investigation.

As a result, there was a 40% decrease in the number of criminal prosecutions in the country (19 for the 1st quarter of 2018) and 49% for the Gomel region (12 for the first quarter of 2018), compared to 2017.

People PLUS notes that in the criminal laws of other countries there is the possibility of a person living with HIV to be released from criminal liability if they disclose and receive consent from another person and/or took appropriate measures to greatly reduce the risk of transmission. The application of this rule, as prescribed in the law, will protect the rights and interests of people living with HIV in Belarus. Though ultimately, this is not enough to counteract the damage to the HIV response caused by criminalisation.

A proposal on introducing similar amendments to Article 157 put forward by People PLUS was discussed at a recent meeting of the Parliamentarian Commission on Health, Physical Culture, Family and Youth Policy. The Ministry of Health of the Republic of Belarus sent a letter to the Parliament in support of the initiative. The Commission decided to submit it for discussion in the autumn session of the Parliament.

People PLUS have arranged a meeting with the Chairman of the Gomel Regional Court, S.M. Shevtsov, in order to reduce the number of ongoing cases and to get support to further changes in legislation.

Parliamentary hearings are expected to take place in Autumn 2018.

Download the EECA Regional Criminalisation Report produced by EWNA on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE here

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Livestream: HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy: Closing Plenary (HJN, 2018)

HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy Live from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 6 June 2018

Live stream hosted by Mark S King www.myfabulousdisease.com

This live stream was brought to you by HIV Justice Network www.hivjustice.net

Directed and produced by Nicholas Feustel

Running order (click on the time cues to jump there):

1) Pre-show with Mark S King and guests 00:08

2) Rapporteur session 03:48

3) Issues around the AIDS 2020 conference 13:30

4) State reports 16:17

5) Breaking news 40:14

6) Thank you’s 41:37

7) Chant 48:04

8) After show 49:59

Facilitated by Naina Khanna Positive Women’s Network – USA CALIFORNIA With Susan Mull Rapporteur PENNSYLVANIA and many, many others

Side show interviews with Sean Strub SERO Project PENNSYLVANIA and Edwin J Bernard HIV Justice Network UK

Livestream: HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy: Plenary 6 – Leave No One Behind: Intersections of HIV Criminalization with Sex Work, Drug / Syringe Use, and Immigration (HJN, 2018)

HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy Live from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 6 June 2018

Live stream hosted by Mark S King www.myfabulousdisease.com

This live stream was brought to you by HIV Justice Network www.hivjustice.net

Directed and produced by Nicholas Feustel

Running order (click on the time cues to jump there):

1) Unscheduled action by people with disabilities 00:08

2) Pre-show with Mark S King and guests 05:39

3) Plenary 09:35

4) After show 1:28:39

Introduced by Allison Nichol SERO Project WASHINGTON DC Facilitated by Carrie Foote HIV Modernization Movement INDIANA With Tiffany Moore Criminalization survivor TENNESSEE Cris Sardina Desiree Alliance ARKANSAS Marco Castro-Bojorquez US PLHIV Caucus and HIVenas Abiertas CALIFORNIA Chris Abert Indiana Recovery Alliance INDIANA Zaniya James L.A.T.E. Project INDIANA

Side show interviews with Arneta Rogers Positive Women’s Network – USA CALIFORNIA

Livestream: HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy: Plenary 5 – From Mexico to Colombia: The Latin-American Fight Against Criminalization (HJN, 2018)

HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy Live from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 5 June 2018

Live stream hosted by Mark S King www.myfabulousdisease.com

This live stream was brought to you by HIV Justice Network www.hivjustice.net

Directed and produced by Nicholas Feustel

Running order (click on the time cues to jump there):

1) Pre-show with Mark S King and guests 00:08

2) Plenary 13:02

3) After show 1:53:48

Introduced by Naina Khanna Positive Women’s Network – USA CALIFORNIA Facilitated by Gonzalo Aburto SERO Project NEW YORK Dr Patricia Ponce Red Mexicana de Organizaciones contra la Criminalización del VIH MEXICO Ricardo Hernandez Forcada Red Mexicana de Organizaciones contra la Criminalización del VIH MEXICO Leonardo Bastidas Red Mexicana de Organizaciones contra la Criminalización del VIH MEXICO Brisa Gomez Red Mexicana de Organizaciones contra la Criminalización del VIH MEXICO Dr Alfredo Daniel Bernal Red Mexicana de Organizaciones contra la Criminalización del VIH MEXICO Paola Marcela Iregui Parra Universidad del Rosario COLOMBIA German Humberto Rincon Perfetti Lawyer COLUMBIA Interpreter: Liz Essary Cabina Event Interpreting INDIANA

Side show interviews with Diego Grajalez CNET+ Belize, Edwin J Bernard HIV Justice Network UK and Marco Castro-Bojorquez USPLHIV Caucus and HIVenas Abiertas CALIFORNIA

Livestream: HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy: Plenary 4 – Towards Liberation: Advancing a Racially Just HIV Criminalization Reform Movement (HJN, 2018)

[FYI: We didn’t live stream Plenary 3 due to confidentality concerns

HIV IS NOT A CRIME III National Training Academy Live from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 5 June 2018 ]

Live stream hosted by Mark S King www.myfabulousdisease.com

This live stream was brought to you by HIV Justice Network www.hivjustice.net

Directed and produced by Nicholas Feustel

Running order (click on the time cues to jump there):

1) Pre-show with Mark S King and guests 00:08

2) Plenary 11:06 3)

After show 1:30:01

Introduced by Rebecca Wang Positive Women’s network – USA CALIFORNIA Facilitated by Kenyon Farrow The Body NEW YORK With Waheedah Shabazz-El Positive Women’s Network – USA PENNSYLVANIA Robert Suttle SERO Project NEW YORK Marco Castro-Bojorquez US PLHIV Caucus and HIVenas Abiertas CALIFORNIA Maxx Boykin Black AIDS Institute CALIFORNIA Naina Khanna Positive Women’s Network – USA CALIFORNIA Toni-Michelle Williams Racial Justice Action center GEORGIA

Side show interviews with Stacy Jennings BULI participant SOUTH CAROLINA and Barb Cardell Colorado Mod Squad COLORADO