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Critics blast use of the courts to police HIV

High-profile conviction feeds "HIV panic"

Credit: Ken Bosem illustration

In a first in Canada — and possibly in the world — a jury has convicted a man of murder in the HIV-related deaths of two former lovers.

Johnson Aziga, 52, was found guilty on Apr 4 of two counts of first-degree murder, 10 counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of attempted aggravated sexual assault.

The Hamilton man, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1996, was twice ordered under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act to disclose his status to sexual partners and to use condoms during intercourse. The court heard that he continued to have sex with as many as 20 women without using condoms or disclosing his status and that, in some instances, he lied when asked directly about his status. Two of his former lovers have died of AIDS-related diseases; five more are HIV-positive.

“The facts themselves as reported from this case aren’t particularly sympathetic facts,” says Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

But the danger, says Elliott, is that the hype around the trial will feed public antipathy toward people living with HIV/AIDS (PHAs) and negatively impact policy around HIV criminalization.

“The fact that we’ve got reams of media coverage of a murder trial and headlines screaming ‘murder,’ I think only complicates the effort to talk sensibly,” he says. “It heightens the anxiety of people with HIV but also feeds into a simplistic view of this issue. It makes it harder to say, well, hang on a minute, let’s not go overboard in using the law.”

Elliott says the conviction feeds “a certain degree of HIV panic” which will make it more difficult for AIDS organizations urging restraint in applying criminal law to HIV transmission.

“There’s just that much less willingness to entertain those points and it’s easier to perceive that those raising those issues are somehow apologizing for a particular accused or excusing or defending what a particular accused person is doing,” he says. “There seems to be a limited capacity for folks to look beyond a particular case, which in some may be particularly egregious, and think that that must be the basis upon which the law should be decided when in fact the law is supposed to take a larger view.

“We can’t let public policy be dictated by one particularly egregious case…. There may be some circumstances, probably relatively few, in which a criminal prosecution is justified, but let’s not extend the criminal law too far and that’s I think what we’re increasingly seeing when we’re trying to get convictions even where condoms are used or it’s about lower risk sexual activity that doesn’t pose a significant risk of transmission.”

Angel Parks, coordinator of the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s Positive Youth Outreach program, says in addition to further stigmatizing PHAs high-profile cases like Aziga’s may hamper prevention efforts.

“I fear it gives the general public more vulnerability to HIV infection by giving them a false sense of security that criminal law will act as a deterrent to people engaging in high-risk sexual activities without disclosing their status,” says Parks. “Whereas we know there have been some studies that show… the majority of cases of transmission actually occur before a person has been diagnosed. It’s when they’re most infectious and before they have anything to disclose to their partner.”

Barry Adam, a sociologist at the University of Windsor and Ontario HIV Treatment Network researching the impacts of criminalization on PHAs, calls using the courts to police HIV “draconian.”

“It’s very worrisome and regressive,” says Adam. “In the 1980s we had an era of panic around HIV. There was lot of talk about quarantine and finger-pointing at people who were positive. I think LGBTQ community came to together to help take care of and protect HIV-positive people. Then we arrived in the ’90s and there was a more balanced approach about everyone taking responsibility for safe sex.

“This just makes you worry that we’re starting to tip the balance the wrong way again and forgetting that HIV prevention is a collective responsibility.”

Both Elliott and Parks say increased efforts will be necessary on the part of PHA advocates in the wake of the conviction.

“It’ll make us have to take on a very specific and concerted effort to increase our public policy advocacy,” says Parks, “maybe creating a policy brief and seeing if ministers within the judicial or education system would be willing to work together in order to increase and provide better education in law enforcement and in the school system.”

“I think what would be a useful thing is to come up, if possible, with some sorts of guidelines for prosecutions as has been done in the UK,” says Elliott. “Guidelines that would help them exercise their discretion which they’re suppose to exercise. They’re supposed to have regard to what would be in the public interest.

“We’ll certainly be pursuing the possibility in collaboration with the attorney general’s office.”

Sentencing in Aziga’s case is set for May 7, after which Aziga’s lawyers are expected to appeal.