Denmark: Man convicted in 2007 under now suspended law acquitted; further cases to be reviewed

A court in Denmark has acquitted a person living with HIV who had previously been found guilty under the country’s now-suspended HIV-specific criminal statute. The man’s sentence was reduced to six months, due to his conviction for other, drug-related, offences.

In its brief ruling, published below, the Eastern High Court reasoned that since there is now evidence that HIV is not a “life-threatening condition” he could no longer be guilty of exposing another to a “life-threatening illness”.

The Danish Justice Minister suspended the law in February 2011 noting that HIV can no longer be considered life threatening because, for people living with HIV in Denmark who are on treatment, HIV has become a manageable, chronic health condition.

According to sources in Denmark, it is believed that the courts are in the process of reviewing all HIV-related criminal cases from 2007 – this is the year that National Board of Health informed the Ministry of Justice that HIV was no longer a life threating illness (as defined in the law), even though it took the Ministry another four years to suspend the law.

This would make Denmark the first country in the world to fulfill the fifth recommendation relating to HIV criminalisation of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

2.5. The convictions of those who have been successfully prosecuted for HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission must be reviewed. Such convictions must be set aside or the accused immediately released from prison with pardons or similar actions to ensure that these charges do not remain on criminal or sex offender records.



Denmark: Eastern High Court Prosecutor v. Jackie Madsen,7 August 2012

Eastern High Court Prosecutor v. Jackie Madsen, 7 August 2012 (unofficial translation).

Denmark: Eastern High Court Prosecutor v. Jackie Madsen,7 August 2012

Transcript the Eastern High Court book of judgments


Delivered on August 7th 2012 by the Eastern High Court’s 13th department

(country judges (names) with lay assessors)

Prosecutor v. Jackie Madsen

(Lawyer (Name)… )

Frederiksberg Legal verdict December 20th 2007 (…) is being appealed by the prosecution based on claim of acquittal of violation of Penal Code § 252 paragraph 2 (issue 2) and appeasement

Defendant has alleged alleviating circumstances.

High Court’s reasoning and result

Since HIV could not, at the time of the crime is crime, be considered a life-threatening illness according to the Penal Code § 252, paragraph 2, the defendant is acquitted for issue 1 in accordance with the prosecution’s claim on this matter.

As a result of this, the sentence is reduced to 6 months of imprisonment. In the decision of the sentence, the court has taken into account (put weight on) the amount of heroin and that the accused himself was a drug addict.

Moreover, the verdict is confirmed.

It is thus decided:

The District Court’s judgment in the case against Jackie Madsen is altered so that he is punished by imprisonment for 6 months.

The Treasury must pay the costs of the High Court.


The accuracy of the transcript is confirmed. Eastern High Court…

US: Illinois modernises its HIV-specific criminal law

By Ramon Gardenhire (from AIDS Foundation of Chicago)

In my role as director of government relations for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC), I have to come to terms with the reality that the legislative process often means having to make ugly compromises.

This sentiment hit home this past legislative session, when the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that would amend the state’s law that makes exposing someone to HIV a crime.

The Illinois criminal transmission of HIV law, on the books since 1989, has no basis in science, discriminates against people with HIV, and stigmatizes HIV.

AFC strongly opposes the law and fights for its repeal.  However, when it became abundantly clear that SB 3673 was going to pass with overwhelming support, we made a strategic decision to work the bill’s sponsor to minimize the legislation’s harm as much as possible.

We decided to make a bad law better.

SB 3673, introduced by Sen. Dale Righter (R – Mattoon) and sponsored in the House by Rep. Jim Sacia (R – Freeport) unanimously passed both chambers in the Illinois General Assembly. It amends the current HIV criminal transmission law to allow prosecutors to access medical records to learn if someone knew their HIV status, a fact that has to be established before an individual can be prosecuted.

This bill was a response to a tragic case in Whiteside County, Ill., in 2009, involving a man who allegedly knowingly exposed several women to HIV. The state’s strong HIV confidentiality law prevented police from accessing the suspect’s medical records to determine if he knew he had HIV. After charging him with 13 counts of criminally transmitting HIV to another person, the man was only sentenced with one count. There was no way to prove that he had knowingly exposed his partners to HIV.

We fear that the amendment to the law would deter individuals from testing for HIV because they could be prosecuted for criminal HIV transmission if they learn their status.  Earlier versions of the bill would have allowed access to social service agency and counseling records; AFC and allies were able to remove this provision, which would have had a chilling impact on testing and risk-reduction counseling.

AFC and our partners, ACLU of Illinois and AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, were able to negotiate significant changes to the underlying law in return for not working against the provision that allowed access to medical records.  The changes we made are below.  This bill:

1.    Requires that prosecutors prove that an individual specifically intended to transmit HIV to another individual  – This is an increased legal standard that prosecutors must meet and consider before bringing criminal charges.

2.    Limits acts of transmission to only “sexual activity without the use of a condom” – Prosecutors cannot charge individuals for activities that will not transmit HIV, such as biting or spitting.

3.    Defines the term “sexual activity” to include only sexual acts that include insertive vaginal or anal intercourse – This means no more criminal transmission cases for oral sex or kissing.

4.    Exemption from prosecution if a condom is wore during sexual activity – No more criminal charges if a person uses a condom.

Although the amended law significantly narrows the situations that could result in prosecution for criminal transmission, these cases are likely to always involve “he said he said” or “she said” cases that happen between the sheets with no witnesses.

It will be one person’s word against the other to determine if the couple used a condom and which sex acts they engaged in.  Cases will hinge on whether the infected partner disclosed his or her HIV status before having sex. Too often, former partners press charges for criminal transmission as retaliation when a relationship has soured.

The bill does include an important protection against prosecutorial abuse.  Judges must approve all requests for medical records, and the judge reviews records and determines if they are before they are turned over to prosecutors.  However, AFC and other advocates will remain vigilant to ensure that abuses do not occur.

The bill has been sent to Gov. Pat Quinn who will likely sign the bill into law.  According to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, 32 states and two U.S. territories have HIV criminal transmission laws.  The bill strikes an apprehensive compromise between HIV advocates and law enforcement. While the bill is an improvement, it still contains problematic sections.  AFC will continue to monitor the law once it is enacted, and look for opportunities to repeal it altogether.

Press Conference (AIDS 2012)

HIV Criminalization – An Epidemic Of Ignorance?

Laws and prosecutions that single out people with living with HIV are ineffective, counterproductive and unjust.

As delegates from around the world met in Washington DC at AIDS 2012 to discuss how to “end AIDS” through the application of the latest scientific advances, this press conference highlighted how laws and policies based on stigma and ignorance are not only creating major barriers to prevention, testing, care and treatment, but also seriously violating the human rights of people living with HIV.

Hosted by (in alphabetical order): The Center for HIV Law & Policy / Positive Justice Project, United States; Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), Netherlands; HIV Justice Network, United Kingdom/Germany; INA (Maori, Indigenous & South Pacific) HIV/AIDS Foundation, New Zealand; The SERO Project, United States; Terrence Higgins Trust, United Kingdom; UNAIDS, Switzerland.

Chaired by Paul de Lay, Deputy Executive Director, UNAIDS, Switzerland


– Nick Rhoades, HIV criminalization survivor, United States [from 03:28]
– Marama Pala, former complainant, New Zealand [from 09:15]
– Edwin J Bernard, Co-ordinator, HIV Justice Network/Consultant, GNP+ [from 14:35]
– Laurel Sprague, Research Director – SERO, United States [from 23:15]
– Lisa Fager Bediako, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation/ Positive Justice Project, United States [from 33:10]

Video produced by Nicholas Feustel,, for the HIV Justice Network

HIV prosecutions: global ranking (AIDS 2012)

Presented by Edwin J Bernard at 19th International AIDS Conference, Washington DC, July 22-27, 2012.

Video produced by Nicholas Feustel,, for the HIV Justice Network

Introduction by Susan Timberlake [00:00]
Introduction by Laurel Sprague [01:54]
Start of Edwin J Bernard’s presentation [03:33]
Slide 01: Overview [04:40]
Slide 02: Global Commission on HIV and the Law [05:19]
Slide 03: Case Study: Take a Test, Risk Arrest [05:21]
Slide 04: Global Overview of Laws and Prosecutions [08:29]
Slide 05: Law Enforcement: Top 30 Jurisdictions [09:47]
Slide 06: Law Enforcement Hot Spots [10:58]
Slide 07: Top 15 Global HIV Criminalization Hot Spots [11:19]
Slide 08: Focus On Africa [12:09]
Slide 09: Focus On Africa: Positive Developments [13:08]
Slide 10: Focus On Europe and Central Asia [14:10]
Slide 11: Focus On Europe and Central Africa: Positive Developments [15:18]
Slide 12: Oslo Declaration on HIV Criminalisation [17:45]

Updated abstract based on final data

Criminal prosecutions for HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission: overview and updated global ranking

E.J. Bernard (HIV Justice Network, Berlin, Germany/ Criminal HIV Transmission (blog), Brighton, UK)
M. Nyambe (Global Network of People Living with HIV, GNP+, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Background: Many jurisdictions continue to inappropriately prosecute people living with HIV (PLHIV) for non-disclosure of HIV-positive status, alleged exposure and non-intentional transmission. Although most HIV-related criminal cases are framed by prosecutors and the media as being cases of ´deliberate´ HIV transmission, the vast majority have involved neither malicious intent nor has transmission actually occurred or the route of transmission been adequately proven.

Methods: This global overview of HIV-related criminal laws and prosecutions is based on latest data from GNP+ Global Criminalisation Scan and media reports collated on Final ranking will be based on the total number of prosecutions by July 1 2012 per 1000 PLHIV.

Results: At least 66 countries have HIV-specific criminal laws and at least 47 countries have used HIV-specific (n=20) or general laws to prosecute HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission. Despite growing national and international advocacy, prosecutions have not diminished, particularly in high-income countries, with the greatest numbers in North America. Since 2010, prosecutions have taken place in Belgium and Republic of Congo for the first time. In 2011, although HIV-specific laws were suspended in Denmark and rejected in Guyana, Romania passed a new HIV-specific criminal statute. In Africa, the continent with the most HIV-specific criminal laws but with few known prosecutions, Guinea, Togo and Senegal have revised their existing HIV-related legislation or adopted new legislation in line with UNAIDS guidance.

Conclusions: Given the lack or inadequacy of systems to track HIV-related prosecutions in most places, it is not possible to determine the actual number of prosecutions for every country in the world. These data should be considered illustrative of a more widespread, but generally undocumented, use of criminal law against people with HIV. Improved monitoring of laws, law enforcement, and access to justice is still required to fully understand impact on HIV response and PLHIV.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (Sero, US, 2012)

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee has long been a champion in the US Congress for people with HIV.  Here she discusses H.R. 3053, the Repeal HIV Discrimination Act, which would require states to review their HIV criminalisation statutes with incentives to modernise them to reflect contemporary science.

This short film is part of Sero’s ongoing documentation of the experiences of people with HIV who have been prosecuted for “HIV crimes”.  Visit Sero’s video pages for a growing collection of video interviews.

Norway: First gay man to be prosecuted goes public, makes a real difference (corrected)

Correction: Louis Gay tells me that he is not the first gay man to be prosecuted in Norway.

I am the first one to be prosecuted for practicing “safer sex” (oral sex, only. with no condom and no contact with sperm or precum), without transmitting any virus!

Original post: Yesterday, Bent Høie (Conservative), the leader of the Standing Committee on Health and Care Services, raised the issue of HIV in the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget). He was concerned about the rise in new diagnoses in the country, and discussed increases in unprotected sex amongst gay men and other men who have sex with men, as well as lack of knowledge of HIV and HIV-related stigma within broader Norwegian society.

Notably, he linked these concerns with Section 155 of the Norwegian Penal Code. This infectious disease law enacted in 1902 is known as the ‘HIV paragraph’ since it has only ever been used to prosecute sexual HIV exposure or transmission. By placing the burden on HIV-positive individuals to both disclose HIV status and insist on condom use, the law essentially criminalises all unprotected sex by HIV-positive individuals even if their partner has been informed of their status, and consents. There is no distinction between penalties for HIV exposure or transmission. Both “willful” and “negligent” exposure and transmission are liable to prosecution, with a maximum prison sentence of six years for “willful” exposure or transmission and three years for “negligent” exposure or transmission.

The law is currently in the process of being revised by the so-called Syse-committee (named after its chair, Professor Syse but officially titled The Norwegian Law Commission on penal code and communicable diseases hazardous to public health), but at the moment, the current law stands.  At least seventeen individuals have been prosecuted since 1999 – and until this year all prosecutions were as a result of heterosexual sex despite the fact that most HIV transmission in Norway is the result of sex between men.

Earlier this year, Norwegian prosecutors decided to prosecute the first gay man under this draconian law. Although transmission had been alleged, phylogenetic analysis ruled out Louis Gay’s virus as the source of the complainant’s infection. Still, he is being prosecuted for placing another person at risk despite the only possible risk being unprotected oral sex, and despite Louis disclosing his HIV-positive status prior to any sex (which the complainant denies).

Louis decided to go public in November 2011 during the initial police investigation. Since then he has given interviews to some of the largest circulation newspapers and magazine in Norway, as well as to national TV and radio. I had the pleasure of meeting Louis in Oslo in February when he addressed the civil society caucus that produced the Oslo Declaration.

As well as his own blog, Louis now also blogs about his experience for  In his second post he notes that

I chose to go public before any final decision was made from the State attorney office, with the chance of provoking them to prosecute me because they don’t want to risk being criticized by media of giving in to pressure. This is fine with me.  Like I’ve stated before I want to have my case tried before a court. Anyway! Now we all have to wait until the trial before we get any further answers about my case. In the meantime the discussion whether we should have a law like this (and using it like in my case) is protecting the society from more infections or just making it worse, continues.

So, yesterday, Louis’s brave stand paid off.  Conservitive MP Bent Høie, the leader of the Standing Committee on Health and Care Services, mentioned Louis’ case in Stortinget.

Then it is a paradox that the social-liberal Norway still has an HIV-paragraph that is criminalizing HIV-positive people’s sexuality. This has now been brought to a head by the public prosecutor who has brought charges against HIV-positive Louis Gay, who has not infected any other person and who conducted what we call “safer sex”, which in reality is the health authorities’ recommendations. I am aware that Syse-committee is now working on this issue, but it is still necessary to highlight this in this debate, because current criminal law works against prevention strategy and stigmatize HIV-positive people. I hope that today’s debate could be the start of that we again have a strong political commitment to reducing new infections of HIV and to improve the lives of those who are HIV-positive – which in reality are two sides of the same coin.”

(Unofficial translation by Louis Gay)

I’m so impressed with Louis’s courage and determination, and I think that he actually might just be making a difference by going public.  If you support Louis, let him know by leaving a comment here, or on his own blog, or at

Norway: Prof. Matthew Weait delivers stirring clarion call to recognise harm of HIV criminalisation

Yesterday Professor Matthew Weait, Professor of Law and Policy at Birkbeck College, University of London delivered a stirring lecture to the public health professionals involved in implementing Norway’s HIV strategy.  As Norway is currently reconsidering its criminal code as it relates to HIV and other infectious diseases, ‘Criminalisation and Effective HIV Response’ was a clear clarion call to “recognise that HIV is not a legal problem capable of a legal solution, but a public health issue to be dealt with as such.”

What I would urge you to recognise is that the appeals for change are being made not only by people living with HIV and the civil society organisations advocating on their behalf, but increasingly by health professionals, virologists, epidemiologists and others who have come to recognise that punitive responses to HIV are counter-productive and damaging in efforts to respond effectively to the spread of the virus. This is a critically important point, and their voice needs to be heard.

With Matthew’s permission, I am publishing the entire lecture below.  You can also download the full text (with full detailed footnotes and references) from Matthew’s blog.

Professor Matthew Weait in Oslo
Courtesy of Charlotte Nördstrom

As a country which many in the world look to for progressive policy-making grounded in evidence and human rights principles, Norway’s response to HIV is not simply a matter of national importance, but is of significance both to the developing countries to which it provides economic and other assistance in the fight against endemic HIV, and to high-income countries whose epidemics are similarly limited and concentrated in particular population groups.

Your current national strategy – Acceptance and Coping – states as follows:

The comprehensive aim of this strategy is that at the end of the strategy period, Norway will be a society that accepts and copes with HIV in a way that both limits new infection and gives persons living with HIV good conditions for social inclusion in all phases of their lives.

The strategy document sets out a number of specific goals, each of which discusses measures that will be taken in order to deliver on the strategy. My focus today is on the way criminalisation of HIV transmission and exposure might impact on that strategy. I will start, though, with some background and context.

1. International Thinking and National Law

At the 26th special session of the UN General Assembly in 2001, States party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (including Norway) declared their commitment to

… enact, strengthen or enforce, as appropriate, legislation, regulations and other measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against and to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by people living with HIV/AIDS and members of vulnerable groups …

This commitment is yet to be realised. Since the beginning of the epidemic new and existing legislative measures have been introduced and enforced that impede rather than further the central goal of reducing onward transmission of HIV, of minimising the spread of the epidemic, and protecting the rights of PLHIV and those most at risk of infection.

In a 2010 Report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health referred to this commitment in the context of the criminalisation of HIV transmission and exposure. Drawing on the best available evidence he emphasised that criminalisation has not been shown to limit the spread of HIV, that it undermines public health efforts and has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities.

Drawing on the UNAIDS International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights and more recent UNAIDS/UNDP policy, he reiterated that the criminal law should only be deployed in very limited circumstances. In particular, people should not be prosecuted where there is no significant risk of transmission, where they are unaware of their HIV positive status, do not understand how HIV is transmitted, have disclosed their status (or honestly believe their partner to know it), failed to disclose because of a fear of violence or other serious negative consequences, took reasonable precautions against transmission, or have agreed on a level of mutually acceptable risk.

Norway, in common with most other countries, falls significantly short of the UNAIDS guidance and of the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations. Its current criminal law imposes liability irrespective of a person’s viral load, those who transmit HIV non-intentionally, and on those who merely expose others to the risk of infection. Also, and more exceptionally, it allows for the criminalisation and punishment of those who engage in unprotected sex, even when they have disclosed their HIV positive status to their partner and where the partner has consented to the risk of transmission. Although its penal code allows for the criminalisation of other serious diseases, almost all cases that have been brought to the courts have concerned HIV – and so although it is not an HIV-specific law in theory, the practice is very different.

2. The Enforcement of Law

This use of the criminal law has placed Norway – along with its Scandinavian and Nordic neighbours, at the top of the leader board of HIV criminalisation in Europe, and very high globally. When we look at rate of convictions per 1000 PLHIV in the European region, we see a higher rate of conviction in northern European countries, especially those in Nordic and Scandinavian countries.

This variation in intensity of criminalization as measured by convictions seems strange at first glance, especially when you contrast it with the HIV prevalence estimates.

It is especially notable that the bottom three countries with respect to criminalisation (Italy, France, UK) have – conversely – the highest numbers of people living with HIV, and (in general) higher than average prevalence.

What, then, might be explanations for this? We have to be cautious, given the non-systematic nature of the data collection; but I do think that we can begin to understand the pattern if we think about some of the social, cultural and historical differences between countries in the region.

So, for example, we can see that the top five criminalising countries in the region all have laws which impose liability for the reckless or negligent exposure (and thus have a wider potential scope for criminalisation). We can also see that these same countries all have high confidence in their judicial systems (which may go some way towards accounting for a person’s willingness to prosecute after a diagnosis, believing that their complaint will be dealt with efficiently and fairly). Even more interestingly, I think, are the correlations that we see when we look at variations in interpersonal trust, as measured by the World Values Survey.

Here we can see the top five countries in the region with respect to interpersonal trust (and the only countries where the majority of respondents trusted other people), are all in the top half of criminalizing countries, with rates of conviction in excess of 1 / 1000 PLHIV.

These correlations between interpersonal trust and conviction rates in the region become even more interesting when we learn that, according to reliable empirical research, the Scandinavian and Nordic countries have a lower fear of crime, are less punitive in their attitudes to those who commit crime, and – in general – have lower rates of imprisonment for convicted offenders than other countries. If this is the case, why would HIV transmission and exposure criminalization be so high?

My answer to this is tentative, but it seems plausible to suggest that the sexual HIV cases that get as far as court and a conviction are ones which are paradigm examples of breach of trust. It is not inconsistent for a society to have a lower than average generalised fear of crime, or lower than average punitive attitudes, and at the same time to respond punitively to specific experiences of harm, especially when that arises from a belief that the person behaving harmfully could have behaved otherwise and chose not to. Indeed, it seems entirely plausible that where there are high expectations of trust, breaches of trust (for example, non-disclosure of HIV status) are treated as more significant than where value in trust is low. Combine this with countries (such as your own and Sweden) which are committed to using law to ensure public health, and which consequently are prepared to using it to respond to the risk of harm (HIV exposure), as well as harm itself (HIV transmission), and we can see why the pattern of criminalization appears to be as it is.

3. Impact of Criminalisation on PLHIV and Most at Risk Populations

What is the impact of criminalisation?

This is a difficult question to answer, because it depends on what we mean by impact. First, there is the impact on the individual people who have been, and continue to be, prosecuted – people who have been investigated, convicted, jailed and publicly shamed, sometimes simply for having put others at risk, sometimes for transmitting HIV unintentionally, sometimes when they have been completely open about their status with a partner in a relationship which subsequently breaks down. For these people, being HIV positive and failing to live up to the exacting standards the law in this country, and others in this region, demands of them has turned them into criminals with all the social and economic disadvantages that entails. Here we could think specifically of your own fellow country man Louis, who had a charge of transmission dropped when it transpired that he was not the source of his partner’s infection, but is still being prosecuted for exposure.

Second, and critically, there is the impact on public attitudes towards, and responsibility as regards HIV, PLHIV and sexual health generally. Here I am not talking just about the individual experience of the two Thai women in Bergen who stopped in a bar for a drink after shopping and, in front of other customers, were thrown out by the owner because of a recent case in the town involving a Thai sex worker (from that point on, being Thai themselves (though legally in the country and married to Norwegian men) made them guilty, positive and dangerous simply by association). I am talking more of the broader impact that such an example illustrates.

Criminalisation, because it places responsibility for transmission risk on people with diagnosed HIV, serves to reinforce the idea that responsibility for one’s own sexual health belongs with those people. The existence of criminal law provides people who have consciously taken risks with an official mechanism for declaring their victim status. It provides grown, adult, men who have unprotected sex with migrant sex workers an opportunity to deny any responsibility they might have for actually taking responsibility themselves. It provides people (in Norway) who in fact consent to sex with a person who has disclosed his or her positive status the opportunity to take revenge if the relationship breaks down. If we can blame someone else for misfortune, or for being in situations where there is a risk of harm, it is only natural that some of us will; and the sensationalist media coverage (as bad here as it is anywhere in the world) merely serves to confirm this and to sustain the ignorance which the FAFO study highlighted. The headlines are, as you well know, always in the form “HIV-man (or woman) exposes x number of women (or men) to HIV.” They are never in the form “X number of people put themselves at risk by having unprotected sex”.

Finally, I would just like to mention Maria (not her real name) who I interviewed here in Oslo in March 2012. For her, a mother of two children who was contacted by the police about the arrest of a man she had had a sexual relationship with (but who was not in fact the source of her HIV infection) the trial in which she was made to be a complainant has resulted in her being so afraid of legal repercussions that she has not had sex for eighteen months. For Maria, and people like her, a guilty verdict does not necessarily result in closure, and it does not result in a reversal of sero-status. It simply creates another potential criminal who better beware. If, as Acceptance and Coping states, Norway is serious about reducing the number of new infections, enabling people to feel secure in testing and in discussing their positive status more openly, it must recognise that criminalisation of the kind that exists in this country does nothing to assist in those endeavours.

4. Barriers to Change

What, then, are the barriers to change? I ask this question recognising that the Commission led by Professor Aslak Syse has yet to report on its findings and make recommendations, and here I will mention only two.

The first thing I would say here is that here are many in the Scandinavian and Nordic region who are calling for a change in the law. However, there has been, and continues to be, among politicians and policy makers – as well as among some public health professionals – a scepticism about calls to decriminalise non-deliberate HIV transmission and exposure.

Take politicians first. Their scepticism stems, I think, from a belief that arguments in favour of decriminalisation when made by advocacy organisations are – in effect – arguments for being allowed to practise unsafe sex with impunity: without consequence. If a gay man living with HIV argues that he should not be punished if he has unprotected sex, or does not disclose his status to a partner, or happens to transmit HIV during consensual sex (even when this is the last thing he wishes to do) it is very easy to hear that as someone claiming a right to be irresponsible. Put simply, the fact that at a national level in this region the decriminalisation advocacy work has been pursued largely – though not entirely – by civil society organisations has resulted in a less than sympathetic response from those in a position to deliver change – especially those elected politicians whose principal concern is their immediate electorate and public opinion more generally. Nor, for a long time, has the medical profession been entirely supportive. For doctors, especially those in official public health positions at national and regional level, it has been problematic to support those who seem to wish to challenge their role in protecting the health of society generally. For health professionals, arguments for repealing the coercive powers given to them under communicable disease legislation, or of the criminal law that provides the final sanction against those who do not comply with regulations, are easily read as arguments for allowing people with HIV the right to undermine the very thing it is their responsibility to achieve: as a right to put healthy people at risk of disease and illness.

Faced with the way in which their arguments have been interpreted by those with political power, it is small wonder that those appealing for change have met with limited success, despite arguments consistent with those of expert international organisations (such as UNAIDS). What I would urge you to recognise is that the appeals for change are being made not only by people living with HIV and the civil society organisations advocating on their behalf, but increasingly by health professionals, virologists, epidemiologists and others who have come to recognise that punitive responses to HIV are counter-productive and damaging in efforts to respond effectively to the spread of the virus. This is a critically important point, and their voice needs to be heard.

The second factor that sustains the legitimacy of punitive laws in a country, and makes their reform difficult, is the nature of the epidemic in that country. Like other Nordic countries, Norway’s HIV epidemic is localised both socially and geographically. It is predominantly an urban disease affecting MSM and migrants from high-prevalence regions in Africa and Asia. Recognition of this has led to targeted prevention strategies, which is of course welcome; but it has also contributed to the ignorance about HIV among the general population (as shown by the FAFO study), and – critically, I think – to a perception that HIV is, and remains, someone else’s problem. Epidemiologically this may be correct. HIV does not, in general, impact directly on the lives of the vast majority of Norwegians. Few will know someone living with HIV, and even fewer someone who is open about his or her positive status. A consequence of this is that measures which would be seen as gross infringements of civil liberties and personal freedom if applied to the general population are seen as a reasonable and legitimate response. It is as if HIV were a snake that has found its way into a party full of animal rights activists. They cannot simply kill it (that would be wrong, and there are some limits to how one may reasonably respond to phobias) but it is justifiable to take any containment measures necessary to stop it getting any closer.

If you doubt this, consider the following two questions. First, we know that a significant number of new transmissions of HIV are from those who are newly infected and undiagnosed. If the criminal law on exposure and transmission were logical, should it not be applied to all those who have unprotected sex with a partner, who have had unprotected sex in the past, and who do not have a recent negative test result? And if we think non-disclosure is a justification for criminal liability, should we not criminalise all those who fail to disclose the fact that they have had unprotected sex in the past and are uncertain of their HIV status? Being HIV positive is not the relevant risk: infectiousness is.

Why don’t we do that when it is the logical approach? Because such rules would apply to the vast majority of adults in Norway, not merely to a containable and definable sub-section of those adults. And even those who might respond to this proposition by pointing out that undiagnosed HIV is far more common among MSM and migrants would have a hard time justifying criminalising all unprotected homosexual (but not heterosexual) sexual activity, and the unprotected sexual activity of migrant people from high-prevalence regions with native Norwegians. This would be seen, I suspect, as a grossly discriminatory and offensive approach – despite the fact that it makes far more sense than the one that you have here.

As to the second question, consider this. Norway, in common with its neighbours, has a strong tradition of overseas aid, and an official, publicised commitment to providing assistance to developing countries in their fight against HIV and AIDS. Indeed, the Government of Norway has publicly stated that it “ … wishes to focus on how legislation and public services can do more to reduce vulnerability and increase dignity and better cooperation into the fight against AIDS”.

The question therefore is: should Norway encourage the high-prevalence countries to which it provides support to adopt its legal model their HIV response? Put simply, do you think it would be appropriate to criminalise HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure where it is endemic? My guess is that your answer to that would be no. But if the answer is no, you must ask yourselves – as matter of fundamental ethics – why not? Why is it appropriate to respond punitively to PLHIV living in Norway when to do so in Botswana, or Malawi, or Swaziland would be wrong?

It seems to me that the answer to this question, even if it is a difficult and uncomfortable one to acknowledge, is that for as long as HIV only affects a small and definable minority punishment is defensible. As long it is “over there”, among the gays and the migrants and the IDUs, and for as long as coercive powers will not impact on the vast majority of the population, criminalisation is something that can be legitimated and politically defended without fear of popular protest. If this is correct, it is particularly offensive and pernicious. Exposure is exposure wherever it takes place in the world; transmission is transmission; HIV is HIV; disclosure is either to be required as a matter of principle, or not. If criminalisation is not something that one country would countenance for human beings in countries in which HIV continues to be a real and immanent threat, and – critically – human beings for whom HIV infection is far less easy to manage, and still results in significant mortality, then on what possible principled basis is it justifiable to use the criminal law against those in one’s own country, where HIV is a manageable condition and where the quality of life for diagnosed PLHIV is as high as it possibly could be? If there is any substance to the claim that the legal response to PLHIV in Norway is discriminatory – which many of its critics suggest – that substance finds its expression here.

5. Final Observations

Norway is placed better than any other nation at the present moment to reform its law so that it complies with UNAIDS recommendations. The work of the Law Commission, which will report in the autumn of 2012, has been more focused and comprehensive than any other initiative I know of. Its report will, I have no doubt, present arguments both for and against the present law, and those arguments will be supported by the best available evidence. Ultimately, though, legal reform is in the hands of politicians, and their concerns extend beyond the logic of prevention. What those politicians need is the support of those who work in the field, at the sharp end of HIV prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Without that, it will be all too easy to adopt minimal reforms that do not go to the heart of the matter, or to kick the report into the long grass and carry on as before. It is not for me to tell you what your law should be. All I can do is urge you to read the Oslo Declaration, published here just recently, and to watch the video accompanying that. All I can do is encourage you to recognise that the authors of the HIV Manifesto, a radical initiative demanding the repeal of paragraph 155 of the Penal Code, was not written by people who simply want to have sex without consequences but by intelligent, rational and thoughtful people. All I can ask you to do is to recognise that HIV is not a legal problem capable of a legal solution, but a public health issue to be dealt with as such. All I can suggest is that in thinking about this complex topic you ask yourself the following simple questions.

Does criminalising non-deliberate HIV transmission and exposure assist you in your prevention work?

Does it contribute to increasing accurate and helpful knowledge and understanding about HIV and to the de-stigmatisation of people living with the virus?

And does criminalisation make achieving the aims set out in Acceptance and Coping easier to achieve?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is no, then the arguments for HIV criminalisation of the kind and intensity that currently exist in this country are not, I would suggest, as strong as those against.

Switzerland: New Law on Epidemics only criminalising intentional transmission passed in lower house

In a remarkable turns of events in the Swiss Federal Assembly’s National Council (lower house) yesterday, the new, revised Law on Epidemics was passed with a last minute amendment by Green MP Alec von Graffenried that only criminalises the intentional spread of a communicable disease.

The history of the revision of the Swiss Law on Epidemics has been a long and rocky one. The redrafting of revisions to Article 231 of the Swiss Penal Code – one of the most draconian and discriminatory laws on HIV exposure in the world – began in 2010.

The first draft of the proposed new article removed much of the most draconian provisions (i.e. allowing for prosecutions of an HIV-positive partner despite an HIV-negative partner’s full, knowing consent to unprotected sex) leaving only intentional exposure or transmission a criminal offence.  Broad stakeholder consultation agreed with this draft.

However, in December 2010, a new draft presented by the Swiss Parliament’s Executive Branch (Federal Council) ignored the consultation and added lesser states of mind – simple intention and negligence – as well as malicious intent, despite the broad acceptance that the previous version had achieved amongst all stakeholders. Furthermore, the bill introduced a new paragraph creating an HIV disclosure defence.

At a mid-2011 hearing, the National Council’s Committee on Social Security and Public Health (tasked with the re-drafting of the Law on Epidemics) appeared to be open to moving back towards the original draft. The Committee explicitly recognised that the present criminalisation of consensual unprotected sex between a person with HIV and one without undermines prevention efforts and the principle of shared responsibility of both sexual partners.

However, at the end of 2011 the Committee produced further amendments that discarded the disclosure defence but which added “lack of scruples” and “self-serving motives” as alternative elements of intent. The Committee remained split on the question of negligence with the majority opting to retain the section and the minority recommending it be stricken.

So it came as a very welcome surprise that, when the bill finally reached the National Council for debate and final vote yesterday, an amendment by Green MP Alec von Graffenried was proposed at the last minute and almost immediately and overwhelmingly passed by 116 votes to 40.

A transcript of the entire proceedings (in a combination of French and German) are available here, but below I quote the full (unofficial) English translation of von Graffenried’s speech (courtesy of Nick Feustel) explaining his amendment.

In short, he says that the Law on Epidemics needs to deal only with public health issues, such as bioterrorism, and not address harm to individuals.  He notes that general assault laws already exist to punish egregious cases of HIV transmission and that much of the proposed bill is not only redundant, but confusing.  “You can’t be ‘negligent’, ‘malicious’ and ‘unscrupulous’ at the same time, that’s just not logical,” he argued, quite convicingly.

Advocates in Switzerland were overjoyed at this unexpected turn of events, but one government insider warns that we should not celebrate too early. The bill must now go through the Health Commission of the Council of States (upper house), before it goes to a final vote, and this could take some time (June is mooted, but not definite) and so there may still be further amendments.

For now, however, the clear logic and rationality of von Graffenried is to be celebrated.

Hopefully these developments will have an impact on other countries, too, notably Norway where a similar commission is debating changes to laws that are eerily similar in purpose and outcome to Switzerland’s notorious and outdated Article 231.

Von Graffenried’s Speech

“I speak for the parliamentary group of the Green Party, but of course also in part for my proposition as an individual. This is about punitive laws, we are talking about the amendment of Article 231 in the Penal Code. Reading the draft doesn’t really make you understand what the Commission was about. So I stopped short and then tried to make it clearer in my proposition. As Mrs Schenker explained earlier, there were still some unanswered questions after the Commission’s consultation.

“The problem is that when it comes to transmission of diseases there are always two levels. On the one hand, there is the individual level, the individual health of the aggrieved party. Their health and physical integrity are protected by Articles 111 and the following on those offenses at the beginning of the Special Section of the Penal Code. On the other hand, there is the disease-control part of it. This is the part that article 231 is meant to deal with. That was – how I learned from conversations with the Commission’s members – the Commission’s concern. Article 231 in its present form confuses these two levels. That is how, until now, for example an HIV positive person becomes guilty of bodily harm according to article 123 as well as the spreading of human diseases according to article 231.

“In their draft, the Federal Council completely revised article 231. They included a ‘basic offense’, a ‘qualified offense’, a ‘privileged offense’ and a ‘negligent offense’. But they still adhered to article 231 protecting individual health as well as being effective for disease-control. This was obviously not what the Commission wanted, and so they slashed the article.

“Obviously, the Commission didn’t want to adopt this concept. They only wanted to adopt the ‘qualified offense’, i.e. a highly criminal, if not even terroristic offense. This is about public health, i.e. the spreading of epidemics. This is what I adopted for my proposition. Possible intentional or negligent bodily harm or even manslaughter are covered by the regulations in Article 111 and the following of the Penal Code. Those are about individual health. Thus, criminal liability is only carried out under these regulations, but not anymore under Article 231 of the Penal Code on the spreading of human diseases.

“However, the Commission adopted the ‘negligent offense’. I’ll have to expatiate on this.

“The negligent perpetration is already regulated under the Administrative Criminal Law. Having an article in the Penal Code on this is unnecessary, because this regulation is already included in Articles 82 and the following of the Epidemics Law, which you have just enacted without discussion. Negligent perpetration is already included there.

“The Commission’s version is not possible, because the Commission eliminated the ‘basic offense’. You can’t be ‘negligent’, ‘malicious’ and ‘unscrupulous’ at the same time, that’s just not logical. Paragraph 2 would become ineffective, but at the same time it would also prevent the application of the Administrative Criminal Law, because Article 82, paragraph 1 excludes applying the Administrative Criminal Law, because the Penal Code does have this regulation.

“Therefore, I ask you in the name of the parliamentary group of the Green Party to accept my proposition as an individual, in order to clarify the punitive laws.”

The Impact of Legalizing Stigma (In The Life Media, US, 2011)

In The Life’s 2011 report, Legalizing Stigma, was the first on a national US TV channel (PBS) to look at the issue of HIV criminalization from the perspective of people targeted by criminal laws. The segment led to public education efforts, beginning with the first ever Congressional Briefing on this issue.

Sweden: Campaign to change draconian, punitive policies for PLHIV aiming for Government review

In Sweden, the Communicable Diseases Act requires people with diagnosed HIV to disclose in any situation where someone might be placed at risk and to also practise safer sex (which, in Sweden, means using condoms – the impact of treatment on viral load and infectiousness is not yet considered to be part of the safer sex armamentarium.)

But in Sweden you’re damned if you do (disclose) and damned if you don’t because Sweden is one of several countries in western Europe – including Austria, Finland, Norway, and Switzerland – where people with HIV can be (and are) prosecuted for having consensual unprotected sex even when there was prior disclosure of HIV-positive status and agreement of the risk by the HIV-negative partner. Sweden uses the general criminal law for these prosecutions of which there have been at least 40 – out of an HIV population of around 5,000.

And if you think the Swedes aren’t being overly harsh, then watch the harrowing documentary, ‘How Could She?’ about a young woman, Lillemore, who was in such denial that she did not tell anyone that she was HIV-positive (including the doctors who delivered her two children). Even though both children were born HIV-free, and no-one was harmed by her non-disclosure, following the break-up of her marriage, her ex-husband reported her to the authorities and she was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.

Fortunately, most of these countries with overly-draconian policies towards people with HIV are well advanced in the process of examining (and hopefully, changing for the better) such laws and policies.

Norway has set up a special committee to examine whether its current law should be rewritten or abolished: its recommendations are due in May.

Switzerland is currently revising its Law on Epidemics, to be enacted later this year, and, according to my sources, the latest version appears to be mostly consistent with UNAIDS’ recommendations.

In 2010, Austria’s Ministry of Justice conceded that an undetectable viral load is considered a valid defence, even if they say individual judges can ignore their recommendation, although much more could still be done to remove the legal onus for HIV prevention on people with HIV.

And Finland has established an expert group on HIV/AIDS within the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare with the aim to ensure legislative reform, and address laws and polices that reinforce stigma and discrimination.

But Sweden – which has the most HIV-related prosecutions per capita of people with HIV in Europe (and probably the world) and that’s not including the 100+ more people with HIV who have been forcibly detained and isolated under the Communicable Diseases Act – is lagging behind, and continues to enforce its ‘human rights-unfriendly’ policies.

Fortunately, civil society is fighting back. In 2010, HIV-Sweden, RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education) and RFSL (the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights) began a three-year campaign to raise awareness and advocate against Sweden’s over-punitive HIV-related policies.

A recent conference held just before World AIDS Day put together by the campaign and attended by police, prosecutors and politicians highlighted the many human rights concerns over Sweden’s current laws and policies. I was honoured to be one of only two non-Swedes to speak at the meeting (which was held mainly in Swedish – so a big thank you to Elizabeth, my personal “whisper” translator) – you can see the agenda and download a copy of my presentation here.

Download Google translated version of full article here

The meeting and associated campaign received a lot of press coverage, including the front page of the biggest circulation morning paper in Sweden on World AIDS Day.

Download ‘HIV, Crime and Punishment’

At the meeting, HIV Sweden, RFSL and RFSU launched an important new manifesto, ‘HIV, Crime and Punishment‘ that clearly explains what the problems are for people with HIV (and public health) in Sweden and asks for three actions from the Swedish Government:

  • A review of Swedish law, including the Communicable Disease Act as well as the application of the criminal law to HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission.
  • An endorsement by Sweden of the 2008 UNAIDS Policy Brief on the criminalisation of HIV transmission, which says that criminal prosecutions should be limited to unusually egregious cases where someone acted with malicious intent to transmit HIV, and succeeded in doing so.
  • A renewed, clear focus of Sweden’s National HIV Policy on a human rights-based approach to HIV prevention, care, support and treatment, and sex education. 

Let’s hope that Sweden’s policymakers take heed. After all, how can a country which supports UNAIDS’ global efforts, and is perceived to be a global champion for human rights around the world treat people with HIV in its own country as second class citizens?

Don’t think Sweden is that bad?  Check out the 2005 case of Enhorn v  Sweden at the European Court of Human Rights which found that Sweden had unlawfully isolated a man with HIV for a total of seven years, a violation of Article 5 § 1 of the Convention, ‘right to liberty and security of person’.