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Monday 9 July 2012

Human Rights Group rings alarm bell for HIV Positive women held in prison

By @zoemavroudi

“Their lives are in danger.” Human Rights Group rings alarm bell for HIV Positive women held in prison for alleged threat to public health

On April 29 2012, shortly before the Greek May 6 election, dozens of women allegedly working illegally as sex workers were rounded up and taken into custody by Greek police in Athens. Rapid HIV testing was performed on them by Greek authorities at police stations where they were told they were being led for identification purposes. They were subsequently diagnosed HIV positive and were charged with “the intention of causing heavy bodily harm” while photographs of 17 of them at first, were published on the official Greek police website.

The case has caused uproar both in Greece and internationally for what human rights groups have called a clear violation of international laws for the protection from the deprivation of one’s freedom, right to consent to medical testing and medical confidentiality.

A team from the women’s organization Feministiki Protovoulia (Feminist Initiative) and the Centre for Research and Action on Peace, KEDE have visited the prisoners twice at Korydallos women’s prison in Athens where they are currently being held. Protovoulia claims that there are now 26 women held in the prison in relation to the case.

In a press conference held on Friday July 6 by Protovoulia, the group and several other human rights groups in attendance, condemned the “inhumane and humiliating conditions” of the women’s incarceration  and raised serious concerns over the conditions of their incarceration, their physical and mental health, the nature of the legal case brought against them and the circumstances of their arrest and subsequent medical testing by the Greek authorites.

Protovoulia has pledged its support to the women in any legal claim they may wish to raise against the authorities and individuals responsible for their ordeal.

According to Protovoulia, international directives weren’t followed properly in the method of HIV testing and consultation of the women prior and after their testing. The group also said that the prisoners are primarily drug users and are denied access to proper medical care, psychological and social services support. Some of them are suicidal and are being denied contact with their families. The women are being held in the basement of the prison, separately from other prisoners under “unsanitary conditions.” The group has called the situation “hellish” and said the women’s lives are “in danger.” Last week, three of the women slit their wrists inside their cells.

Former Greek Health Minister Andreas Loverdos had stated following the arrests that HIV positive women constituted “a health bomb” and pledged to “cleanse the center of Athens,” while calling for a criminalization of unprotected sex. Former Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis stated on his facebook page at the time that the publishing of the women’s photos was “absolutely legal” and that their human rights were in conflict with the “ultimate right of public health.”

Although thousands of men reportedly called the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, KEELPNO in the hours and days following the publishing of the photos to say they had had unprotected sex with sex workers in Athens, no one apart from the women has been prosecuted or forcefully tested for the HIV virus so far.

The women have stated to Protovoulia representatives from inside the prison that they are uncertain about the nature of the charges against them and informed them of their plan to go on a hunger strike (which they later suspended, awaiting positive developments through Protovoulia’s intervention). The prisoners also stated that they were unaware of the reasons behind the testing they were given at Greek police stations.
During Friday’s press conference, Protovoulia stated that 96 women were originally rounded up by police from the streets of central Athens and taken to a police station at the end of April. The women were made to take a blood test inside the police station instead of at a health center as required by law. At no time were they advised on the nature of the testing or asked for their consent and were instead told that the testing was for the purposes of identification.

The arrests that followed were based on the results of the original so-called rapid test without subsequent confirmation by follow-up testing as required by international directives. Moreover, the test results were announced to police officers on the site long before they were announced to the women themselves, many of whom only found out from lawyers from the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees much later. The group stated at Friday’s press conference that the file case against the women has so far been based on a statement by a doctor and a testimony from a single police officer. The group claimed that a legal case for prostitution cannot be based on the existing case file under any circumstances and that the Court decision that resulted in the women’s incarceration is the culmination of a long list of legal violations.
Giorgos Nikolaidis of the Leftist Radical Doctor’s Cooperative, ARSI stated at Friday’s conference that the women are being used as “social guinea pigs” and added that their incarceration renders them incapable of defending themselves properly. “This is a process of incrimination of the victim with severe social consequences for both them and those close to them.”

He mentioned that one of the prisoner’s children was allegedly forced to take an HIV test in school and that another woman’s relatives have been laid off following the arrests.

Vasiliki Katrivanou, an MP for the SYRIZA party, the only political party represented at the conference, expressed her solidarity with the women and said she would raise a question about the case in Parliament. She also stated that stigmatizing vulnerable social groups leads to “their loss of confidence in public health institutions,” which results in an increased public health risk.

Tasia Christodoulou, a former attorney for one of the prisoners, stated that according to the case file a member of the board of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Mr.  Papadimitriou, personally directed the police to a specific brothel in Athens and to one of the women.

The full original press release of Protovoulia published after the group’s first visit to the Korydallos prison follows below. A link to an online petition for the release of the prisoners is included along with bank account information for donations in support of Protovoulia’s support initiative.



Press Release

A team from Protovoulia (3 people) together with Fotini Sianou from the women’s organization KEDE visited the HIV-positive women prisoners on 26/6 at Korydallos prison.

The meeting was held in the meeting room of the prison and about 12 young women came at first –more than 20 were there toward the end– the majority of whom were Greeks apart from 2 Roumanians and a Russian.
It was evident on most of them that they have been making extensive [drug] use, had marks on their arms and legs, few teeth left and looked unkempt, while some of them [looked like] they were giving up (one of them had her head dropped down and looked dazed from the pills they are giving her).

Their desperate questions: why are we in here, what have we done? Why did they take our photos?

One of them was as a result banned by her family, who don’t answer her phonecalls, another one’s two brothers were fired from their jobs, another’s child was isolated in school before an HIV test was given to it to determine that it was “clean” and in spite of [the result] it was sent to a different school, while her husband took sole custody in a court; another was sent medication by mail but the prison returned it due to a bureaucratic misunderstanding which resulted in a halting of her treatment etc. They are asking to be released and want moral vindication.

Fotini Sianou from KEDE deposited 168 euros for the purpose of identity cards, (many among the Greek women  don’t even have identity cards) at the accounting department of the prison, which will be used by the social services.

Our intiative handed humanitarian aid from the Xeblogarisma organization, in the form of cigarettes and coffee.

From the data given to us and from our own research, we conclude the following, in relation to both the women’s individual rights, as well as to the issue of the HIV infection:

The HIV tests given to the young women who were arrested under a health provision on the control of infectious diseases Article Γ.Υ. 39α 1002 /2-4-2012 initially over practicing illegal prostitution, were administered at the 4th Police station and at Petrou Ralli [Police Station] through a practically summary procedure.

According to the standard practice and before this incident both in Greece as well as internationally, rapid testing REQUIRES CONFIRMATION through the proper ELISA test and in the case of positivization,
through a Western Blot test before a result is given to the patient in order to avoid the possibility of a falsely positive result. Rapid testing hasn’t been used up until now in any hospital in the country for the control of HIV infection.

The women’s arrest happened based on the rapid test results as sole proof without a confirmation of the disease.

Moreover, according to paragraph 11 of the aforementioned health provision, “police authorities provide every legal aid in cases of isolation, restriction-quarantine, hospitalization and medical treatment which according to KEELPNO [Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention] is considered obligatory in case of a diagnosis of a highly infectious disease due to public health hazard.”

In this case, the police wasn’t summoned by KEELPNO, the contrary happened.

International directives for the performance of consultations before and after the testing were not followed.
The women tested –according to their statement- were practically uninformed about the test that was performed on them. Two of them were on medication already and would have had no reason to consent to the test. One of them was from Crete were she receives care and was here for one day, to visit her sister.
The only information they received was that it was a case of some sort of identification.

The HIV-positive users were transferred to Korydallos where they are being held, even though according to the provision, they should have been in a hospital in order for the state of their health to be evaluated and any need for treatment [to be assessed].

The discrimination that these women are subjected to is stunning even for HIV-positive prisoners. Male HIV-positive prisoners are transfered to the Agios Pavlos Hospital at the Korydallos prison regardless of which prison they are based in around Greece. The women on the other hand, remain in the prison. In this particular case they are being held:

  • under conditions which according to them are extremely unsanitary (flooded toilets, rats and cats in the area, non-existent washing conditions) 
  • without having been adequately tested (staging tests of for the HIV infection are still pending for ten more of the women because of the well known hospital difficulties to complete relevant tests). It remains unkown whether there is a Hepatitis C, HCV infection and its staging.
  • under the “supervision” of a doctor from NAPavlos [Hospital] and not from doctors from the women’s prison.
  • without having been entered fully into detox programs at KETHEA or OKANA which their legal coverage depends on.
  • without any communication with their families and ability to receive money from Roumania or Russia.
  • while eight (8) of them have no identity card. What is stunning is that even though their pictures were taken by the police and were posted on the internet, the pictures haven’t been made available for their identity cards.

Their demand for moral vidnication is also intense since it hasn’t really been understood how it has been possible that they have a responsibility for “Greek family men” who pay extra money for unprotected [sexual] contact. It is also impossible for them to understand how an entire society can demand from a drug user who prostitutes herself for her daily dose, to protect Greek and non-Greek family men… Moreover, some of them state that they were caught in the streets, in the “piatses” and the police couldn’t certify that they were prostituting themselves. So their only crime is that they are drug users and HIV positive.

Several among the prisoners had decided to go on a hunger strike starting June 26. We asked them what their demands were and they told us first of all, to be released; secondly moral vindication for the public shaming from the [publishing of their] photos; thirdly, sanitary conditions in the prisons; and fourthly, food. We replied by telling them that we could help, in the form of humanitarian help for the duration of their imprisonment and in their petition for relase as well as in their monitoring afterwards. Also, that we will assist them in filing law suits and claims in the Greek and European courts for their moral vindication (the damage of being publicly shamed is of course irreversible) and for their financial compensation, as well as the punishment of those responsible, individuals and authorites alike, if they wish to at the organization’s expense.
It goes without saying that we neither discouraged or encouraged them to proceed with their hunger strike.
After our departure, they stated to the social worker that they are postponing their hunger strike in anticipation of positive developments through our intervention.

After our departure from the prison we asked to meet with Justic Minister Mr Roupakiotis who responded the following day.

After we presented the problems to him, we asked that he visit the prisoners himself to witness the situation, we presented him with the women’s demands and warned him of a danger of serious infections due to the unsanitary conditions, of a serious threat to the women’s lives from the violence that they themselves inflict on their bodies but also because of suicidal thoughts some of them expressed to us. We asked for his immediate intervention in order to remove the women’s photos from the police website where they remain posted after almost two months and to prohibit the posting of these photos on all other websites.

The minister expressed his interest in the case and we await his actions.

After all of the above, it is obvious that in any instance of heavy infection suffered by the prisoners, heavy bodily harm or suicide, the blame will lie not only with those who condoned their imprisonment under the conditions we have described above but with those authorites, institutions and persons who ordered their imprisonment.

Athens, 29-6-2012

This press release is co-signed by the Center for Research and Action on Peace (KEDE)

Bank account for support: National Bank / Current account / 040/723528-36 / IBAN GR7901100400000004072352836/ ETHNGRAA

For the promotion of the demand for an immediate release and against the inhumane imprisonment of the HIV positive women, a website has been created to collect digital signatures from Greece and Europe (online petition

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