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Wednesday 30 September 2009

Canada: Rapist who is also HIV-positive gets similar sentence to those found guilty of HIV exposure during consensual sex

A 36 year-old HIV-positive Ontario man, originally from Nigeria, who twice raped his former girlfriend has been sentenced to nine years in prison for a variety of charges relating to the rapes.

William Imona-Russel was found guilty in February 2009 of assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, threatening death, attempted aggravated sexual assault to endanger life and two counts of sexual assault.

However, the judge, Ontario Superior Court Justice John McMahon, found that although his victim tested HIV-positive following the second rape, in March 2005, she may have become infected during consensual sex before Immona-Russel was diagnosed.

The dates of his diagnosis were in dispute during the trial, however, according to a February 13th report in the Toronto Star.

The complainant [a 58-year-old former flight attendant, who cannot be identified], has testified that Imona-Russel never disclosed his HIV-positive status when they had repeated unprotected sex in her Dixon Rd. apartment from about June to August of 2003, as well as a few times later.

But Imona-Russel argued today that he only found out he was infected in July 2003 and never had sex with her thereafter.

"Sexual activity stopped immediately after I became aware of my HIV status," he argued from the prisoner's box in Ontario Superior Court.

He denied that, as the woman alleged, he came over to her apartment unannounced on March 3 and 13 of 2005, beating and raping her on those two occasions, once putting a drill to her head and threatening to kill her.

He argued that he was visiting her at her invitation and only once pushed her, causing her to fall to the floor on March 3, after she attacked him with a vodka bottle.

He also said that he always wore a condom when they had sex after they met within weeks of his arrival in Canada from Nigeria in April 2003.

But the Toronto Star reported on February 24th that although Justice McMahon rejected Imona-Russel's version of events, he gave him the benefit of the doubt regarding when HIV transmission took place because the complainant couldn't tell when condoms were used.

But the judge rejected his evidence, finding that the doctor informed Imona-Russel of his HIV status at least a month earlier, after which he continued to have sex with the woman. But the woman said she could not tell if Imona-Russel was wearing a condom during sex, as he claimed, so it is possible he was, the judge said.

The complainant had previously provided graphic details of the situation leading up to the rapes in a January 14th Toronto Star report.
William Imona-Russel later siphoned $9,000 from her bank account and raped her twice, once threatening to kill her with a power drill, said the woman, 58, who cannot be identified.

"I was terrified ... for my life," the woman testified yesterday on closed-circuit television to avoid seeing her former boyfriend in the courtroom next door.

There's little doubt in my mind that Imona-Russel is a 'bad egg'. He is also about to go to trial in connection with the stabbing murder of Yasmin Ashareh, 20, whose body was found stuffed in a garbage bag in 2006 which took place whilst he was out on bail.

Therefore, I'm really surprised that the Justice McMahon was so lenient, not just regarding the issue of the HIV transmission, but also in his sentencing. Although he received nine years in prison for the six charges (the Crown had asked for 8 - 10 years) , Justice McMahon gave him credit of five years and 15 days for the pre-trial custody he had already served, so he will only serve four years. When HIV-positive individuals who have not disclosed before sex where HIV transmission has not taken place are being sentenced to similar prison terms (for example this Zambian migrant in Manitoba) this really devalues the suffering of rape survivors and over-values the 'crime' of non-disclosure.

The only HIV-related charge amongst the six he was found guilty of was "attempted aggravated sexual assault to endanger life" - i.e. HIV exposure during rape. Nevertheless, media coverage of this trial has continuously focused on Imona-Russel's HIV status (with headlines such as "HIV-positive man gets 9 years for sex attack") alongside his immigration status and ethnic background.

In this case, Imona-Russel's HIV status was actually irrelevent: he raped a woman twice and all of the most serious charges had nothing to do with HIV. However, a combination of media sensationalism and confused Canadian law (where non-disclosure before sex is also considered sexual assault) means that a really bad man who happens to be HIV-positive, such as Imona-Russel, is lumped together in the public perception with many HIV-positive Canadians who had consensual sex (rather than rape) with their so-called 'victims' and were sentenced to similar prison sentences without there ever being any transmission of HIV.

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