February 3, 2011
Would a new government mean more rights for people with HIV?
In Egypt, the victims of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule haven't just been government dissenters -- they've also been people living with HIV.
While receiving a hefty amount of U.S. foreign aid, Egypt has conducted mass deportations of HIV-positive foreigners and arrested, tortured and convicted HIV-positive people based on their status.
"Police have blanket authority to intimidate certain populations," said Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS program at Human Rights Watch. "There's a lot of homophobia, and police have targeted the communities, arrested gay men, gone through their address books [and] conducted forceful anal exams."
Between 1986 and 2006, Egypt deported more than 700 foreigners with HIV, nearly all of whom were of African descent. All foreigners who apply for a work or residency visa must test for HIV, and those who test positive are immediately expelled.
The government frequently uses charges designed to criminalize homosexuality to also criminalize HIV-seropositivity.
In 2007 and 2008, the government launched a crackdown on people living with HIV, arresting at least twelve men suspected of being HIV-positive, calling them a public health threat. Police beat several of them, later subjecting the arrested individuals to anal examinations to "prove" they had engaged in homosexual conduct. Authorities charged them with "habitual debauchery," a term Human Rights Watch says Egypt uses to punish homosexuality, which is not specifically penalized in the country's legal code.
Some were chained to their beds for days in a Cairo hospital. Authorities gave all of the men HIV tests without consent -- those who tested positive were convicted to a maximum of three years in jail. "People like you should be burnt alive," a prosecutor reportedly told one of the men, when informing him that he was HIV-positive. "You do not deserve to live."
While Egypt is considered a low-HIV prevalence country, its own National AIDS Program warned in a 2009 report that "unless concerted efforts are made, this status might not prevail." Indeed, Mubarak's Egypt presents a number of troublesome risk factors that could foment a wider epidemic, including rising poverty, low condom use and an increasing number of people engaging in premarital sex. AIDS education is sparse: Less than five percent of females ages 15 to 24 have comprehensive knowledge of HIV, according to the government survey.
Not surprisingly, however, the 21-page piece says nothing about how government-sanctioned brutality against homosexuals and HIV-positive people contributes to the spread of the virus. The government also left of out large pieces of information, such as the percentage of people who have had sex with more than one partner in the last year. That information, the report says, "is not relevant to country epidemic status."
It's unclear what a new government in Egypt would look like: It could be more repressive, which might mean continued attacks on HIV-positive people. If it's one bent on expanding human rights, however, a measure of relief could be in sight.
"The issue of police brutality in Egypt is larger than just the experience of men who have sex with men and of people with HIV," said Amon. "Hopefully this pressure on the government and these protests bring real reform to the kinds of abuses that were taking place to a wide range of individuals that the government saw as dangerous or deviant or a threat to Egyptian society."