In 2010, audiences in Greece were glued to their TV screens to watch The Island, a miniseries about a Greek island with a sad and disgraced history: Spinalonga
Spinalonga, the islet off the coast of Crete which inspired the series, had become during the first half of the 20th century a quarantine for lepers, who were shipped off to live their days in its dilapidated buildings, isolated from the rest of the population.
Given the success of that semi-fictional story, it was more than ironic that a year later, Greeks watched an eerily similar incident unfold on their TV screens, this time on the 9 o’clock news and featuring a group of their contemporaries living in the country’s capital city.
A group of HIV positive people, most of them Greeks and all of them women, were arrested and treated like modern day lepers during a police operation launched in the centre of Athens only days before the national elections of May 6, 2012. The women were rounded up by police officers and, without prior consent, they were tested for HIV by doctors from the national centre for disease control. Those who tested positive, 26 in total, were detained on a flimsy prostitution charge as well as the “intent” to harm their clients, a felony charge unprecedented in Greek legal history for HIV positive citizens.
And in a twist possibly more cruel than lepers had to endure during crueler times, the women’s mug-shots, names and private information were broadcast on television channels, where journalists and politicians made hysterical proclamations of an HIV epidemic that threatened to invade the clean and immaculate universe of “the Greek family.” In spite of swift condemnation by human rights groups and a large section of the legal and medical communities, more arrests followed in the summer and the women’s ordeal continued in prison where they were held under what activists have described as devastating conditions.
Fortunately, there is good news in the case. The unprecedented felony charge seems to be failing the judicial test. Three women were acquitted last week, while several others have been released gradually in the past five months albeit without the media spotlight heaped on them during their arrest.
Even though the ones released have seen their charges reduced to a misdemeanor, their legal battle is far from over as they will have to face the courts again in a process which could take years given the notorious sluggishness of the Greek legal system.
This is an important case. The rights of these women were violated in the most fundamental way. It is hard to think of people held in a police station overnight without charge, force-tested by doctors sworn to protect their privacy and dignity, and to not wonder how such images compare to inhuman practices of past times.
The public defense of Greek authorities and politicians centered on the idea of a need to contain an epidemic possibly engendered in the center of Athens.
But here again, the irony is palpable. The centre of the Greek capital, where the arrests happened is in many ways a kind of modern Spinalonga. In spite of millions thrown into its development ahead of the 2004 Olympics, central Athens has come to symbolize a berth of isolation for homeless citizens, immigrants and drug users who are abandoned there not by any boat arriving from a nearby coast but by a broken system that has consistently failed its citizens. Austerity measures that were hailed as the surefire way to reforms have coincided with a rapid decline in the social services that are necessary to prevent this influx of vulnerable people in Athens’ downtown neighborhoods.
The argument that the general population must be protected from the open wound that is central Athens made use of HIV as a stand-in for an abstract social threat. But there is no reason why HIV should create the kind of panic that infectious diseases evoked in past times. We are equipped with enough knowledge and hard-earned experience not to panic over HIV or retort to touching our fellow human beings with a stick.
Given this evidence, the outrageous way with which Greek authorities have treated these women and continue to deny them complete justice, is nothing if not sullied.
Shooting for a video-documentary about the case is under way in London and Athens, which we aim to release in the spring of 2013. We ask for your continued support in completing this effort. This documentary is researched and produced by volunteers of the Greek citizens’ journalist community with the support of Union Solidarity International.
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