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Friday 27 November 2009

Brazil: Health ministry says no to criminalisation following two high-profile prosecutions

Brazil's Ministry of Health is preparing a public statement in which it recommends that prosecutions for negligent or reckless HIV exposure or transmission cease. Rather, only intentional transmission where both intent and transmission are proven, in accordance with UNAIDS guidance, should ever be prosecuted. The statement follows two high-profile prosecutions in São Paulo.

I first heard of this yesterday when the legal correspondent of Veja Magazine, the largest circulation magazine in Brazil (and fourth largest in the world), contacted me for information about other countries' approaches to criminalisation for an article she is writing about the issue.

She told me that the first prosecution actually took place in 2004, but that the case has become a national issue since the man's retrial, which ended two weeks ago. The case involves a married man who was charged with attempted murder for not disclosing his HIV status to his mistress during their three year affair, and who subsequently tested HIV-positive. His wife of 25 years knew he was HIV-positive and they always used condoms, and she is not a complainant. In the first trial, the Grand Jury found him guilty of attempted murder and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. This was upheld on appeal, but a second appeal based on a legal technicality led to a second trial in which he was charged, and found guilty of, the lesser charge of assault and sentenced to two and half years - time he had already served.

A second case involves another heterosexual man who has also been charged with attempted murder for having unprotected sex without disclosure with three women, two of whom subsequently tested HIV-positive. This case is ongoing and awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court.

What is significant is that Brazil's government appears to be on a collision course with the judiciary. Although my Veja correspondent was vague about the Ministry of Health's statement (she had not yet been able to interview them), I found this report from Odia/Terra online published on Tuesday which includes a quote from the Ministry of Health's Eduardo Barbosa

According to Eduardo Barbosa, Deputy Director of the Department of STD, AIDS and Hepatitis from the Ministry of Health, in order for HIV transmission to be considered a crime the court must, in addition to proving intent, consider the existence of "psychosocial factors", the stage of treatment of disease and the responsibility of the partner to protect themselves.

A ministry statement goes against a global trend to criminalize those who transmit the disease, according to Barbosa. "Some countries end up adopting such measures as if it were possible to isolate and blame in order to control the epidemic."

This fits well with Brazil's history of focusing on a human rights approach to HIV. In fact, the government is about to pass a new (protective) law which will punish anyone who discriminates against someone with living with HIV with up to four years in prison.

Bill 6124/05 criminalises anyone who promotes any act of discrimination, exclusion or restriction of people living with HIV in schools and kindergartens; in the workplace; and in healthcare settings. It also criminalises third party disclosure of someone's HIV-positive status in these settings.

O reports that

Bill 6124/05 was approved unanimously today [17 November] by the Committee on Constitution and Justice (CCJ) of the House of Representatives. The approval of the project, which was approved by the rapporteur, Congressman Regis de Oliveira (PSC-SP), will benefit about 630 thousand infected in Brazil...

"Nearly a decade after we first attempted to pass this law, the House of Representatives is finally close to creating a law that punishes any act of distinction, exclusion or restriction to people who are HIV-positive," said Regis de Oliveira. During the debate, the proposition, which is being handled in the Committee on Constitution and Justice (CCJ), had the support of most lawmakers...

"It is important that society should identify the various forms of discrimination in order to eliminate them, helping to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Discrimination threatens the rights of these citizens live in dignity, so that often they become victims of irreversible psychological damage, " he concludes.

The bill now goes to the vote on the House floor.

I should have more details on the cases and the government's official response next week.

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