‘Ruins’ – the 2012 HIV sweeps and what came next

By Harry van Versendaal

With her back to the camera, a woman speaks softly and haltingly. Pausing only when emotion threatens to overcome her, she tells a story of anguish and humiliation at the hands of the Greek state.

It was April 2012, during the runup to a tense parliamentary election, when police rounded up hundreds of alleged prostitutes around Athens city center and – in cooperation with state medics – subjected them to forced HIV tests.

About 30 women who tested positive were charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm, a felony. Police also posted their names and photos online and appealed to those who had engaged in sexual contact with them to get in touch with authorities for health checks and treatment. The health minister at the time, Andreas Loverdos, said the operation was in the interest of public health. AIDS, he said, had “spread beyond the ghettos and entered Greek society.”

Groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Greece of violating human rights and medical confidentiality as mug shots of the detainees were quickly reproduced by several news websites and newspapers, often alongside stories about the ticking “health bomb” created by HIV-positive prostitutes.

“Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch Hunt,” a 53-minute film by Zoe Mavroudi that was shown to journalists in Athens on Wednesday, documents the psychological impact of the stigma forced on the prosecuted women and their families. At the same time, the documentary sets out to deconstruct the social causes and political motives that led to the operation. To do so, “Ruins” draws on a number of interviews with two of the HIV-positive woman and their mothers. It also features discussions with doctors, lawyers, journalists, academics and activists who campaigned for their release.

“More than being a case of HIV criminalization, this mass police operation was unprecedented because it was carried out in cooperation with official health authorities,” Mavroudi said during the press conference in reference to the state-run Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) that conducted the AIDS screenings.

Mavroudi, a playwright, screenwriter and actress who is making her directorial debut with “Ruins,” said the sweeps – which took place without significant evidence that the suspects were sex workers or that they had transmitted the virus – marked a “barbaric turning point in the Greece of the crisis.

“The crackdown targeted people who are weak and sick, people who do not engage in party politics, people however who have been mostly hit by the crisis,” said Mavroudi, adding that it was time to dole out responsibility for what happened.

All of the women, the overwhelming majority of whom turned out to be of Greek nationality, have since been acquitted of felony charges and released from jail. Thirteen of them still face smaller, misdemeanor charges. Meanwhile, the legal provision that led to their arrest was repealed for a brief period before it was reinstated by current Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis.

Loverdos, who has since created his own political party, and former Public Order Michalis Chrysochoidis both declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

In contrast to global trends, the number of HIV/AIDS cases is soaring in Greece, with infections among injecting drug users more than doubling since 2011, official data show.

Experts blame the rise on the elimination of needle exchange programs and an increase in unprotected sex as cash-strapped sex workers are tempted to spare condoms in exchange for a better deal.

The documentary was funded by Union Solidarity International, a recently established UK-based organization that uses new media to back campaigns around the world, including in Greece, and Unite the Union, a British and Irish trade union.

“Ruins,” which will soon be made freely available online, will debut at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos St Annex on Sunday at 7 p.m. It will be screened at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University two days later.

For more information visit http://ruins-documentary.com/

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