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Friday 16 October 2009

Germany: Man accused of intentional sexual transmission; complainant gives interview

An HIV-positive man has been arrested in the northern German city of Kiel accused of grievous bodily harm following a complaint from a 39 year-old woman who recently tested HIV-positive and who claims the man lied about his HIV status before they had unprotected sex. She also claims that he admitted to her that he plans to infect more women.

The story appeared today as an interview with the female complainant in the Hamburger Morgenpost (not-quite perfect English translation from Google translate here).

The woman, known as Beate K. is also photographed, but appears to be heavily disguised in a wig and sunglasses. She names her accused as Volker W. whom she met on an online dating site following the end of her 20 year marriage.

According to Beate, who lives in a small village in Schleswig-Holstein (of which Kiel is the capital), Volker persuaded her to have sex after two months and told her that he was "clean" and was tested for STIs "regularly". She claims he refused to wear a condom.

It's not clear from the interview whether they had sex more than once or how long the relationship lasted. But "in the summer" she became ill, and was eventually diagnosed with HIV disease. She says that since Volker was the only man she had been intimate with since her divorce, she called him to let him know. It was at this point that Beate claims he infected her deliberately

"He admitted he had infected me, and boasted that he would infect other women, since he was already in a new relationship."
The police became involved, arrested Volker W., and are keeping him in custody because there is a risk he will reoffend. According to spokesperson Uwe Wick, they know of three women "affected". He asks that any other women "overcome their shame and report it to the police."

Whilst I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Beate's statements, I am concerned that this testimony will possibly prejudice any judge or jury that may come across this case in the future.

There are certainly good ethical and legal grounds for prosecution, but one of the things that stands out about cases where female complainants go public to talk about their experiences, is the missed opportunity to highlight that even divorced women in small villages in northern Germany are at risk of HIV, and that they shouldn't rely on their male partner's (lack of) disclosure to protect them.

The point of the criminal law is to punish actions that we consider to be morally harmful. In this case, it appears to be warranted (although I would like to hear both sides of the testimony in a trial before my mind is made up). Proponents of crimalisation point to cases like these and say: well, of course, there should be prosecutions. He's bad, he must be punished.

But how has the criminal law (and the media reporting on it) impacted on HIV prevention, on public health? Has it stopped future infections? Possibly, if the man's intention was to infect more women. But the implicit message here is that women need only worry about these rare "monsters" who deliberately set out to infect them.

In order to avoid even more infections, women need to be aware that it is not just "monsters" that can transmit HIV, and that unless they insist on condoms (where that is possible, as it was in this case) rather than rely on disclosure and reassurance, they will be protecting themselves from all partners who may have HIV and may not tell them, either because they don't know they are infected or because they don't disclose.

[Thanks to my German partner, Nick, for helping me understand the report.]

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