- A Cairo appeals court has decided to uphold the sentences imposed on five men jailed in a crackdown on people living with HIV/AIDS. A total of nine HIV positive men have been sentenced to prison so far, the courts seeing them as a threat to the public.
The Cairo court yesterday ruled to uphold the maximum three-year prison terms for each of the five, following a months-long campaign targeting men with HIV/AIDS. The ruling has caused renewed outrage and protests by human rights organisations in Egypt and internationally.
The decision "underscores the Egyptian government's dangerous indifference to public health and justice," the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a statement today. "To send these men to prison because of their HIV status is inhuman and unjust," said Joe Amon of the group. "Police, prosecutors, and doctors have already abused them and violated their most basic rights, and now fear has trumped justice in a court of law," he added.
On 7 May, a court of first instance in Cairo had convicted the five men on charges of "habitual practice of debauchery," a phrase that in Egyptian law encompasses consensual sexual acts between men. Before their first trial, a prosecutor told the men's lawyer that they should not be allowed to "roam the streets freely" because the government considered them "a danger to public health."
Since October 2007, Cairo police have arrested a dozen men on suspicion of being HIV-positive. The crackdown began when one man, stopped on the street during an altercation, told officers he was HIV-positive. Police arrested him and the man with him, beat and abused them, and interrogated them to name sexual contacts. Police then began picking up others based on information from those interrogations.
On 14 January this year, a Cairo court sentenced four of those men to one-year prison terms on "debauchery" charges. An appeals court upheld those sentences on 2 February. The present five defendants were referred for trial separately in March. Authorities released three other men, who tested negative for HIV, without charge, after months in detention.
While the 12 were in detention, doctors from the Cairo Ministry of Health forcibly subjected all of them to HIV tests without their consent. Doctors from Egypt's Forensic Medical Authority performed abusive anal examinations on the men to "prove" they had had sex with other men. Human rights groups have documented that such examinations conducted in detention constitute torture. Police and guards beat several of the men in detention. A prosecutor told one of the men that he had tested positive for HIV by saying, "People like you should be burnt alive. You do not deserve to live."
The prisoners who tested HIV-positive were chained to their beds in hospitals for months. After a local and international outcry, the Ministry of Health ordered the men unchained on 25 February. "Putting these men in prison serves neither justice nor public health," Mr Amon said. "The Egyptian government and the country's medical profession must act to end this campaign of intolerance," he added.
Also the UN's AIDS agency, UNAIDS, has expressed its protests towards the treatment of HIV positives in Egypt. Earlier this year, UNAIDS Country Officer Wessam El-Beih complained about the lack of knowledge and sensitivity among Egyptians regarding the disease. "You can find people who know what you are talking about when you talk about AIDS, but I could say that most people who live here don't know the difference between a person with HIV and a person with AIDS," he noted, according to UN sources.
UNAIDS estimates that about 13,000 people in Egypt were living with the virus in 2005 - an HIV prevalence rate of less than 0.1 percent in a population of around 80 million - so most Egyptians believe HIV/AIDS does not affect their lives.
Given the low official prevalence rate, the government has so far focused solely on highly vulnerable population groups like commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, street children and injecting drug users. But UN agencies have raised the alarm over trends revealing that the number of newly reported HIV cases in Egypt is on the rise.
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