The expert described the situation in Belarus at the 22nd International Conference on HIV held in Amsterdam from July 23 to July 27.
Anatoliy Leshenok is an activist working to counteract the criminalization of HIV transmission, he represents the Republican Public Association “People Plus”. He is a consultant in the project “HIV Criminalization Scan”, implemented by the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS.
– As far as I know, in the first half of 2018, 48 criminal cases were initiated in Belarus under Article 157 of the Criminal Code …
… Compared to last year, the number of criminal cases decreased by 30%.
– Let’s talk about it. In 2017, 130 criminal cases were initiated, this is a huge figure. What is the reason for this, in your opinion?
The Gomel region is championing in the number of criminal cases. In 2016, the regional authorities started overall screenings for HIV, people were tested in enterprises and factories. About 90% of the newly identified cases are ordinary people from general population who have been infected with HIV through sexual transmission. People who use drugs or former prisoners are aware of the laws, they know how to communicate with the police, know what they should say and how to say it correctly. Ordinary people have little or no experience with the law enforcement. When they are diagnosed with HIV, the health workers ask them about former and current sexual partners. And people, either because of their naivety, or of fear, tell about their sexual partners and mention names. Epidemiologists pass all the data to the investigators, and they, in their turn, contact everyone suspected and start the process up. Even if it’s a married couple, and one of the spouses says, “Yes, once we happened to have sex without a condom”, this is enough for them to get charged of the offense under article 157 of the Criminal Code, part 1 – if the partner is not infected, and part 2 – if he or she is infected.
To summarize the reasons for this, I would mention the following intertwined factors:
- Universal screening;
- Lack of legal literacy of the population;
- The vested interest of the investigative authorities (I’m talking about the lucrative interests, when they receive remunerations for the cases disclosed).
– You said that epidemiologists transmit information to investigators. Are they obligated to?
Yes, there is a special resolution that obligates health workers to transfer information in the event of any incidents – for example, traffic accidents or certain crimes. HIV is also listed in that resolution.
If the investigators work with a married couple, they first collect the data from the partner who was infected. Everything is recorded on the victim’s testimony form, the person signs that paper. This is already the grounds to initiate a case.
Moreover, they use another trick to build up the allegation – they test both partners’ blood for virus genotyping. Of course, the genotype matches, because most people in our territory have the same type of virus. It is used to “confirm” the “guilt”, as people see that they have the same type and perceive this fact as evidence of guilt because of their ignorance. Thus, a number of factors is already prepared for the accusation: a written commitment, which is taken immediately during the patient’s enrolment, confession, the matching genotype and the form signed by the victim.
– Can one do something to avoid punishment?
If people contact us right after they left the epidemiologist’s office, but have not yet been taken to the investigator, then it is really possible. Only recently we have three cases when the data were transferred to law enforcement agencies, but the case initiation was rejected. We consulted people and explained what they need to say to the investigator.
There is a request form on our website, which people can fill to receive a consultation. In addition, thanks to good partnership with the regional epidemiological facilities, we printed leaflets with information about the legal services that we provide and asked doctors to give these leaflets at least to married couples whose data they must pass to the Internal Affairs Department.
– I know that you are working on amending the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus. What is the current progress?
Last year we contacted the Member of the Parliament of the Republic of Belarus, told him about the situation with criminalization, and he supported us. We submitted a package of documents to the Parliamentary Commission on Health, Physical Culture, Family and Youth Policy, attaching such materials as the conclusion of the WHO Regional Office that HIV is a controlled chronic infection, not a lethal disease, and the recommendations of the WHO Global Advisory Committee, our analysts’ opinions and client cases. The members of the commission supported introducing amendments to the Criminal Code, they agree that this provision needs to be changed, as it is obsolete and completely incoherent with the current situation.
We hope that in October our issue will be submitted to the Parliamentary hearings, and we want to participate in the discussion. We registered for an admission with the President of the Supreme Court – we also want to know his attitude and to present our stance and the point of view of our supporters.
By the way, several MP’s took an active part in the discussion of the issue of Art. 157 of the Criminal Code during the Zero Discrimination Day organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS in Belarus, the issue was presented for the discussion by representatives of our organization.
As the autumn session of the parliament is approaching, we plan to hold round tables and expect to invite MPs, representatives of the National Center for Legislation and Law Studies of the Republic of Belarus, representatives of the Ministry of Health, UNAIDS, WHO, journalists.
– Do you have supporters? Who is standing by your side? Maybe representatives of government, other public organizations.
WHO Regional Office, the Ministry of Health and UNAIDS support us very much, they are our best allies. Without them we would never have succeeded so much in promoting our work. I hear the speeches of these people and understand that they support our cause. This is very valuable. Other NGOs are also advocating for people who have been charged with HIV transmission. This makes public opinion change.
– And how do you assess that public attitudes are changing?
We can see it even through comments under the publications. We published 5 or 6 materials over the past year and we see that society is becoming less hostile towards people with HIV, they already show more understanding than condemnation.
This year we presented a photo exhibition “People Plus” with the support of the Ministry of Health and UN agencies. The main characters of the photo exhibition are people living with HIV from various regions of the country who share their personal stories, experience in taking antiretroviral therapy, tell about plans for the future and the impact of treatment on their lives. I believe that the exhibition is unique for Belarus and should move around the country to reach as many people as possible.
– Tell us real stories when one of the family was convicted. I want people to read and realize that this terrible thing is actually happening. I cannot even conceive this, just imagine that people live happily, and one day the police shows up in their house …
Just two weeks ago a young woman contacted us, she has a family and two children, the youngest is three months old. Her husband is not infected. She is facing allegation under Article 157, Part 1 – posing her husband in danger of infection. Just imagine, the police came to her house and took photos of their bed as a crime scene!
They have already tried to charge her earlier, when it turned out that her first child had HIV – allegedly she did not take ARV therapy properly, and this caused infection of the child. But the accusation failed because of the lack of substantiation. Therefore, when the police attempted to accuse her for the second time, we have already approached the MP’s assistant, asking to intervene. I hope this will work.
Let me tell another story. You asked me about suspended sentences, but they also are very challenging for a person. We now are managing a case of a married couple with a child. The wife was infected; her husband became infected after 7 or 8 years of marriage. They had a bad luck, I mean that they contacted us too late, when they already had a conversation with the investigator. Basically, the woman was convicted to a suspended sentence. She is now a member of our organization, she provides peer-to-peer counseling for the people who are at risk of being accused of HIV transmission. However, the persons serving suspended sentences are subject certain restrictions: they cannot visit public places, that is, she cannot take her child out somewhere; they cannot travel for more than one hour, that is, they may only go to work and back; if one needs to travel outside of the city, they have to go to the police department and submit a request. They may not leave the country. The police come 2-3 times a week, at 11 pm, to check if she is at home, whether the home detention regime is respected. And no one cares what her child, her neighbors think about this woman…
And there is yet another case. We provided advice to a woman with higher education, who had been working in the commerce industry. Their company was liquidated, and she lost the job. But a person who is serving a suspended sentence must work. The woman sought job in various trading companies, but she had to present the suspended sentence certificate indicating the Criminal Code article under which she was convicted. The security service of these companies kept turning her down. She was lucky to have friends who helped her to find a job, now she works in a shop.
– There are also various UN Committees – did you submit reports to any of them? Did you have to help people file documents with the European Court of Human Rights?
In order to file documents with the ECHR, it is necessary to exhaust all legal remedies available at judicial instances at the country level and to have your case considered by the Supreme Court. There are a lot of peculiarities here, besides, you know, it takes at least 6-7 years to reach the ECHR. Our working group (15 people) prefers to invest their time and energy to changing the situation according to our current plan. We can already see some results budding, even despite the fact that we are dealing with a fossilized system which will take a long time to change. I want to help people avoid suffering, and we will do everything possible to ensure that the police will not photograph the bed as a crime scene anymore.
Interview by Alina Yaroslavskaya