Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt
Director’s Statement – Ζoe Mavroudi
On April 27, 2012, a few days before a general election that was to make headlines around the world, I was among many Greeks who were taken aback by an appalling and unprecedented spectacle that unfolded on our TV screens.
The mug shots and personal data of 31 HIV positive people, all of them women, paraded on the evening news and morning talk shows. According to initial reports, the women were prostitutes who had been arrested as part of a massive sweep operation by the Greek police, which released their photos upon orders from a prosecutor. Doctors from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention promised in interviews that more “health checks” would follow. Ministers, police and medical authorities defended the operation as an urgent move to protect men and their families from the spread of the virus.
It was hard, at first, to grasp what was happening. My initial confusion, however, soon gave way to anger: the women were charged with a felony, namely the intent to cause “grievous bodily harm” to their alleged clients, even though no one stepped forward to sue them and claim that they had been infected. Only one woman seemed to have been caught in an illegal brothel. It was unclear whether the rest were prostitutes or whether any of them were victims of human trafficking. Greek and international human rights groups accused the authorities of a string of violations, including forced blood tests inside police stations. The numbers cited by news reports were staggering: hundreds had been rounded up. At least one was reportedly underage and most were Greeks in spite of initial rumors that they were all immigrants.
Moreover, the bruises, cuts and marks on their faces and bodies were unmistakable signs of drug use, homelessness and destitution. These women were what is referred to in Greek as “human ruins,” a term that describes people living on the margins of society, abandoned, wrecked.
In spite of immediate and strong reaction to these events, the arrests proved to be only the beginning. In the days that followed, the “HIV-positive prostitutes” were dragged to court in front of TV crews, led by officers wearing latex gloves and, shortly afterwards, to prison, where they were to sit awaiting trial for a charge typically brought against suspected rapists and murderers.
What I was witnessing wasn’t an urgent move to protect the public; it was a witch-hunt.
The general election of May 6 pushed the story to the wayside and the media circus subsided, as it always does. But in the months that followed, as news surfaced of the women’s gradual and uneventful release from prison, I became convinced that this was a story that needed to be documented urgently and to hopefully reach a wider audience, outside of Greece.
For starters, I wanted to give the women the opportunity to go on the record and reclaim their dignity. I was able to visit them in prison and, with help from Greek activists from the Solidarity Initiative for their case I interviewed two of those who had been released. I also interviewed two mothers, who endured the aftermath of their daughters’ public exposure in their small rural communities.
Their words, broken in some moments by silence and in others by tears, stood in stark contrast to the fake emotion and sanctimoniousness of the politicians and TV journalists, who reported on their public ordeal.
Official authorities did not return calls for interviews. But I was able to interview doctors, activists, journalists and HIV experts in Greece and in the UK, who discussed the facts and implications of the case and addressed HIV -which has seen a rise in Greece during the crisis- and the criminalization of HIV transmission through unfair and unproductive laws — an issue that has international significance.
Moreover, I chose to chronicle this case because I believe it encompasses everything that is wrong with our country in this time of deep crisis: our growing collective panic, the ineptitude of our institutions, the servility of our mass media to the presumed sanctity of authority, the self-righteousness of our politicians and our emerging police state.
More importantly, I believe that it reflects a fundamental deficit of empathy for those among us who have been hardest hit by austerity, the people roaming silently among the ruins of our society.
Although some of the women were acquitted of felony charges and others saw charges reduced to a misdemeanor, no official has been called on to explain how this shameful episode came to be. A lawsuit against the doctors and police officers involved in the case may take years to come to trial. As for Sanitary Decree 39A, a special law which enabled the women’s arrests, it was reinstated last July after being briefly repealed and in spite of unanimous international condemnation.
Justice must be done for these women, who were severely abused and manipulated by the Greek State. Before that happens, may the personal accounts in our documentary tell a humane story, different from the official one.
September 8, 2013