30 Gay Men Face Decade in Prison for Having Sex While HIV-Positive

Under the Czech Republic’s criminal code, HIV-positive people can be charged with ‘spreading a contagious disease’ for having unprotected sex.

(Photo: Caspar Benson/Getty Images)

Feb 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Most major health organizations recognize condoms as a highly effective form of barrier protection against sexually transmitted infections. But even when used consistently and correctly, condoms fail from time to time. Even though condoms are not 100 percent effective at preventing transmission of sexually transmitted infections, officials in the Czech Republic are using evidence of STIs to build criminal cases against HIV-positive men.

Last month, the Prague Public Health Authority began criminal investigations against 30 gay men living with HIV for allegedly having unprotected sex, the Prague Daily Monitor reports.

While no other men have come forward saying they’ve been infected with HIV by those being investigated, the health organization inferred that these men must have had unprotected sex because they were diagnosed with an STI following their HIV diagnosis.

“There’s absolutely no evidence. There are no victims,” Jakub Tomšej, a lawyer with the Czech AIDS Help Society, told BuzzFeed. “We believe the only consequence [of this kind of investigation] is that HIV-positive people who get another STI will simply avoid doctors.” Tomšej said he had spoken with nine of the men under investigation, who all said that they had either contracted an STI despite using a condom or from a partner who was also HIV-positive.

In 2005, the supreme court of the Czech Republic ruled that if an HIV-positive person has unprotected sex, he or she violates the national criminal code. Informing the partner of a positive status is not a valid defense. The men under investigation face up to 10 years in prison for “causing a serious bodily harm and spreading a contagious disease,” the Prague Daily Monitor reports.

“I don’t understand why this is happening to me,” one of the men being investigated, who spoke under condition of anonymity, told Gay Star News. He contracted gonorrhea from having sex with a man who is also HIV-positive.

Several European groups supporting people living with HIV or AIDS have noted that the investigation undermines the confidentiality of the public health system.

Facing public scrutiny, Zdeňka Jágrová, head of the Public Health Authority, defended the group’s actions last week. “This campaign aiming at questioning our practices is clearly intended to assert alleged rights of a minority at the expense of the rights of the majority,” Jágrová said in a statement translated by U.K.-based organization HIV Justice Network. “We consider attempts to create a privileged group that would be excluded from generally defined responsibilities very dangerous.”

The Czech Republic saw its highest rate of new infections of HIV last year. Doctors believe the increase is likely because of lessened fears regarding HIV transmission, resulting in people taking fewer precautionary measures, and a decrease in funding for sex education. “In the past 13 years, a significant rise in the occurrence of the HIV infection was recorded in the Czech Republic,” the National Institute of Public Health said, according to local outlet Ceskenoviny.

But persecuting these men could fuel the spread of HIV rather than contain it. Health organizations from UNAIDS to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for governmental bodies to restrict laws criminalizing sex for an HIV-positive person, citing medical advancements such as the use of antiretroviral therapies or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which reduce the risk of transmission. A 2015 report from the World Health Organization found that criminalizing consensual behavior deters HIV-positive people from seeking medical assistance and the very treatment that lowers their risk of spreading HIV to others.

The Czech AIDS Help Society is continuing to work with the men under investigation and is urging public officials to focus on treatment rather than criminalization.

“We believe that the HIV epidemic must be fought not through repression but through the treatment which, in most cases, reduces the viral load of HIV-positive patients to undetectable levels, thus eliminating the risk of transmission,” a statement from the Czech AIDS Help Society said.