20 Dec 2018
The shockingly draconian HIV Criminalisation laws in Belarus – Yana’s story
In 2017, there were over 130 prosecutions of HIV positive people in Belarus initiated under Article 157 of the Criminal Code which relates to the criminal exposure or transmission of HIV. 48 more couples have since been affected by this same law which, among other things, breaches the privacy of the couples affected. Further, most of the prosecutions are brought on behalf of the state, which means the couple has no say in the matter whatsoever. Below is one such story that illustrates the devastating impact that Article 157 has had on community members living in Belarus.
A year ago, Jan was sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment in the Republic of Belarus for the crime of “infecting another person with the mercenary intent of HIV by a person who knew that he had this disease.”
“The victim” of this so-called crime was Yana’s husband with whom she had been happily living with for 5 years and who she shared a child with. Yana’s husband has not accused her of anything, rather the prosecution was brought by state investigators who were tipped off by medical workers of an AIDS center. Needless to say, the rights of both Yana and her husband were violated. This is just one example of dozens of similar egregious human rights violations against people living with HIV taking place in Belarus every year.
An interview with Yana:
In 2008 I became pregnant for the first time from another man who I was not very familiar with. I met this young man and we had a serious relationship and it so happened that I got pregnant. During a gynecological exam they took blood for analysis, and after a while they reported that I had HIV.
Of course, it was a shock. I had no one to talk to, I was frightened that my child would be born sick, or drunk on all kinds of chemicals and although I had sobered up and everything was fine with the fetus, I did not want to take the risk of having the child so I had an abortion. I subsequently broke up with that young man. By winter of that year he became registered with the AIDS center and I was forced to retake an HIV blood test three different times – everyone thought it was some kind of mistake. But then he accepted the situation and humbled herself.
After some time, I met with my current husband. I liked him, but I didn’t know how to be, whether to build a relationship at all, considering my diagnosis. He called and I did not pick up the phone. Two weeks later, I agreed to a date and immediately told him about my diagnosis. Why lie?
Q: How did he respond?
He thought about it for a few day and digested the information. Then he said that my HIV status did not matter. After a while, we began to date seriously, then we got married. In 2012, I became pregnant. When I went to register, they also took blood from my husband and he also turned out to be positive.
Q: You did not use condoms?
No, my husband did not want to [use condoms]
Q: Were you on HIV therapy?
No, the doctor did not prescribe them to me. She said that it was too early as my CD4 level was still normal.
Q: How did it happen that you were charged without the husband’s consent?
My husband fell ill and went to the clinic to see a therapist. Since he has HIV, he was also referred to an infectious diseases specialist. After the visit to the infectious diseases specialist the district police began to show up. They called, they took testimony about where, when, with whom he had slept with. After that the precinct sent the information to an investigative committee, the investigator immediately said, “talk to a lawyer if you do not want your wife to be jailed.”
Q: How did this make you feel?
Shame. I have experienced tremendous shame. We live in a small town, where everyone knows each other. Everyone, from the district to court, has friends. We were ashamed to go out.
Q: Did the lawyer helped you?
I got more help from a public organization. I went from the investigator and called my friend, through her I went to Tatiana and Anatoly and told about the situation. Tatiana even came with me to court and acted as my public defender.
Q: How has your life changed after the sentencing?
Our neighbors wanted to know why the police would come to us at 11 and 12 at night – they [the police] checked whether we were at home, whether we were taking our medication and keeping up with the regime. First they came twice a week, then once in two weeks, now once in 2 months.
I am under home arrest. There are restrictions on movement: on my day off I can go to the city from 10:00 to 12:00. I live on the outskirts of town and it takes me already 40 minutes to reach the center of the city. With a daughter it’s not realistic to go to the cinema or to the rides on the weekend. On working days, I have to travel 1 hour on the way to work, and 2 hours on the way home. The restrictions limit my ability to go to a store or buy something for dinner.
I don’t go to visit anyone, and nobody comes to me and I don’t them too because the police may show up suddenly, at any time, and I will explain them to my guests? The only people who sometimes come to visit are my sisters.
Q: Do your parents know?
No, neither mine nor my husband’s. We did not tell them about our status, or about the court case. They live in another city. When there was this whole process with the court and there was a possibility that they could lock me up, we thought about telling them a fairy tale that I had to move away for work.
Q: How does your daughter react to the police? What do you say to her when they show up.
I say that it is from my work, they check if everything is in order.
Q: How about work? Surely and at work they learned with such publicity.
I confessed to my employer, because the court required some certificates from my place of work. Surprisingly, my boss reacted very humanly and said that anything in life can be. When I needed money for a lawyer, he advanced me my salary. Later, when the company broke up, I worked with him for some time. After that, I started working for a public organization – helping people who found themselves in similar situations as me.
Q: Are there appeals?
Yes, now we have another friend who we accompany to court, she too was recently charged. The situation is similar to mine. We didn’t meet her before her trial started, it was only after sentencing, so I can only give her moral support.
Q: What are your prospects? Can an early release be done?
Yes, if there are no probationary violations, they can review my case in a year. On 9 November 2018, it will have been a year. I’m anxiously waiting for news about what will become of my case.
The Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS has been fighting against the crimialization of HIV exposure and transmission for the last couple of years. Updates on their work and advocacy on this issue can be found here.
HIV Justice Network is a global information and advocacy hub for individuals and organisations working to end the inappropriate use of the criminal law to regulate and punish people living with HIV.