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Tuesday 21 October 2008

Canada: Aziga murder trial finally commences

The trial of Johnson Aziga finally began yesterday, more than five years after his arrest.

I've already written extensively on the case (click here for a page refresh with all postings on Mr Aziga), so I won't comment too much here, except to say that both reports included here, from two different reporters from the widely syndicated Canadian Press, are pretty balanced in their reporting, considering the subject.

One of the reporters actually contacted me (after finding my blog) for a comment, and as well as commenting, I also explained that he had a responsibility to be fair and accurate in his reporting of the trial (and sent him a copy of my book and the NUJ guidelines for HIV reporting for good measure). Shame, then, about the 'HIV carrier' headline, and the rather odd and simplistic last-but-one paragraph , possibly owing to the way Dr. Shariq Haider, "a Hamilton-based expert on infectious diseases including HIV" phrased his answer in court:

A person can be asymptomatic for 10 years before AIDS suddenly develops, Hailer said, though early drug intervention post-exposure can help arrest the infection's progress.

The trial is likely to run for six weeks, and there are likely to be multiple daily reports. I will do my best to summarise each week's most pertinent findings once a week over a weekend, otherwise this blog will end up being only about Mr Aziga.

'Landmark' HIV case goes to trial

Allison Jones

Globe & Mail/The Canadian Press

TORONTO — A man facing first-degree murder charges for allegedly spreading the virus that causes AIDS will see his case go before a jury Monday in what's believed to be the first prosecution of its kind in Canada.

Johnson Aziga, 52, has spent five years in pre-trial custody while cycling through several legal teams.

Two women died after allegedly having unprotected sex with him.

“It's going to be a landmark case,” Mr. Aziga's lawyer, Davies Bagambiire, said in an interview.

“This is the first time that a Canadian is prosecuted for alleged murder through the alleged dissemination or transmission of the HIV virus.”

Mr. Aziga, a former research analyst with Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and 11 counts of aggravated sexual assault.

“I look forward to the evidence unfolding so I can shake it up, cross-examine and demonstrate the holes in the evidence that I believe exist,” Mr. Bagambiire said.

Alison Symington, with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said the case is significant but adds the allegations against Mr. Aziga are rare.

“There are 60,000 people living with HIV in Canada,” said Ms. Symington.

“These are very rare cases indeed, but there's so much attention to them and so much misinformation and panic around them that it really kind of increases stigma and discrimination, which ultimately may be counterproductive.”

The best way to protect the public is to educate them so that HIV-positive feel comfortable disclosing their status to sexual partners, Ms. Symington said.

“Condoms, disclosure: that's going to prevent transmission. Criminal charges aren't,” she said.

There has been a notable increase in criminal charges for HIV transmission since about 2000, Symington added.

Clato Mabior, an HIV-positive man in Winnipeg, was sentenced earlier this month to 14 years in prison on six counts of aggravated sexual assault, as well as one count each of invitation to sexual touching and sexual interference.

Mr. Mabior's trial heard that none of the half-dozen females, ranging in age from 12 to adults, that he had sex with became infected.

Carl Leone was handed an 18-year sentence on April 4 after pleading guilty in Windsor, Ont., to 15 counts of aggravated sexual assault after failing to inform his sexual partners of his HIV status. Five of the 15 women are now HIV positive.

Former Saskatchewan Roughrider Trevis Smith, who is HIV positive, was sentenced Feb. 26, 2007, to 5 1/2 years in prison for aggravated sexual assault. He was found guilty for knowingly exposing two women to the virus that causes AIDS.

Mr. Bagambiire said he believes his client will not be found guilty but, if he is, Mr. Aziga would get double credit for time his five years of pre-trial custody.

That could also be multiplied if Mr. Aziga's legal team successfully argues that time was spent in poor conditions, Mr. Bagambiire said.

“Other inmates attack him because they stigmatize him because of his HIV status,” he said.

Monday is the fifth trial date to have been set in Mr. Aziga's case, largely due to adjournments sought by the defence and Mr. Aziga's firing of three previous legal teams.

Mr. Bagambiire takes exception to characterizing the moves as delays.

“Really we call it fair trial,” he said.

“Justice can't be done in a hurry. If you do justice in a hurry you end up with miscarriages of justice. Yes, time has passed, but that time has been worth it.”

HIV carrier failed to warn sex partners, Crown says

Colin Perkel

Globe & Mail/The Canadian Press

October 20, 2008

HAMILTON — The unprecedented murder trial of a man accused of having unprotected sex with numerous women despite knowing he carried the virus that can lead to AIDS began Monday with the prosecution saying he lied to his partners about his health status.

Johnson Aziga, 52, of Hamilton, faces two counts of first-degree murder because two of his girlfriends died of what the Crown says were HIV-related cancers, along with 11 counts of aggravated sexual assault.

"One may immediately think of a violent rape scenario," prosecutor Tim Power told the three-woman, nine-man jury.

"That is not what this case is all about."

Rather, Power said in his opening statement, Aziga put his partners at risk of serious bodily harm without their knowing, even having sex with one woman on the morning of his arrest in August 2003.

Seven of his 11 partners tested positive for HIV, including the two who died.

While there have been several criminal prosecutions in Canada and the U.S. related to the wilful spread of HIV, this appears to be the first time someone has been charged with lethally infecting partners.

"As far as I am aware, this is the first-ever first-degree murder trial for sexual HIV transmission," Edwin Bernard, a British-based writer and editor specializing in HIV who tracks criminal cases involving the infection, said from Berlin.

Aziga's lawyers said they plan to challenge "each and every aspect" of the Crown's case during a trial they anticipate could last more than six weeks.

"We are sorry for the families," Davies Bagambiire said outside court.

"(But) we do not believe it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the deaths emanated from the HIV virus."

The United Nations AIDS program and AIDS activists oppose criminal prosecutions, arguing they unfairly stigmatize HIV carriers and rely on faulty assumptions about the nature of the virus's transmission and risks.

Power told court that evidence will show Aziga, an immigrant from Uganda, knew in January 1997 he had tested positive for a strain of HIV rarely found in North America, but failed to tell his partners.

Despite several counselling sessions on the risks of transmission and two public health orders that he inform partners about his status and use condoms during sex, he did not do so, Power said.

In addition, when some of the women asked him directly - including one who initially used condoms with him - if he had the human immunodeficiency virus, he said no.

"He went further and lied," Power said.

One woman, a colleague of Aziga's who had a relationship with him in the summer of 2001, videotaped a statement just before her death in December 2003 that is to be played as evidence.

In it, she says was ignorant of Aziga's HIV status, Power told Ontario Superior Court.

The second deceased recorded an audio statement just prior to her death, indicating Aziga feigned ignorance about his infection when she contacted him in 2003 to tell him she had tested positive for HIV, court heard.

As a result, the Crown argued, the women could not have consented to sexual relations with Aziga, a former employee of Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General.

In fact, Power said, the women will testify they would not have had sex with Aziga had they known.

The first witness, Dr. Shariq Haider, a Hamilton-based expert on infectious diseases including HIV, testified close to 64,000 Canadians have tested positive for HIV since the mid-1980s, when the epidemic was first identified.

Of those, he said, about 20,000 carriers developed AIDS, the "end stage" of infection at which point the body's compromised immune system allows for often fatal opportunistic infections and cancers to attack.

Haider testified that the chances of transmission of HIV range from about 0.1 per cent to 0.3 per cent for a single sex act, with the likelihood depending on how badly infected the carrier is, the health of the recipient and the type of sex act.

Anal intercourse is the most risky, followed by vaginal intercourse, he said, adding condoms are not foolproof in preventing transmission.

A person can be asymptomatic for 10 years before AIDS suddenly develops, Hailer said, though early drug intervention post-exposure can help arrest the infection's progress.

The trial before Justice Thomas Lofchik continues.



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