The HIV-positive migrant sex worker first arrested and exposed in 2012 has been acquitted. The woman successfully defended her case in an Athens appeals court last February after a previous conviction. As with all women originally charged with a felony for allegedly infecting thousands of male clients with the virus, there was no complaint or court testimony to support the allegations. The acquittal is a victory for the woman and the group of Volunteer Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees, who have defended most of the 23 women acquitted so far and have made a pending application on behalf of 11 women to the European Court of Human Rights against the Greek State.
The acquittal is especially significant as the woman was the first one who was arrested, publicly exposed and imprisoned in the case and the only one among a group of 32 women to be arrested inside an Athens brothel, on April 27 2012. Her status as a sex worker and a migrant and her brutal exposure on TV, print and online media as an “AIDS prostitute” who was “spreading death” fueled public opinion with stigmatizing sterotypes about HIV right before the launch of the massive police sweep that kicked off a few days later, in the early hours of the morning of May 1 2012. That sweep saw hundreds of women rounded up from central Athens streets and forcibly tested inside vans and police stations as authorities attempted to mistakenly link a spike in new HIV infections the previous year with sex work and immigration.
In a piece by Greek journalist Mariniki Alevizopoulou for Unfollow magazine (link in Greek), the woman discussed her ordeal, saying she only found out about her HIV status after her arrest with help from a translator (in her native Russian, the AIDS acronym is SPID). She related a troubled family history and said she came to Greece at age 19, sent by a relative to look for employment. She described precarious working and living conditions and said a pimp forced her to work non-stop, “even when I had my period” to pay him back for forged documents. A day before her arrest, health authorities visited the brothel and gave her and other women blood tests without informing them of the reason. The following day, doctors returned with police to perform more tests; she was later led handcuffed to a hospital and finally, a police station:
“I asked them: why are you acting like this? What am I, a terrorist?”
Another important trial is coming up on May 3 with one more woman appealing two prior convictions after the Supreme Court of Greece returned her case to an appeals court. She is the only known case in the group, who knew her HIV status, was receiving antiretroviral medication and carried condoms upon arrest. A failure to successfully defend her appeal could have severe implications for the rights of all HIV-positive people in Greece as acquittals so far have largely been based on a woman’s lack of knowledge of her status.
No public figure, doctor or police officer was ever charged in relation to the operation.