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The Greek Armed Forces Are Laying Off HIV-Positive Soldiers

An HIV-positive ex-soldier tells us about Greece's discrimination problem.

by Vania Turner
22 September 2014, 12:13pm

Photo via Flickr user U.S Army Europe Images

He sits opposite me, crossing his palms on his stomach. "Where should I start?" he asks smiling with unease. "From the beginning," I say.

About 10 years ago, Christos – who has asked to remain anonymous – had a completely different life. He was a professional soldier in the Greek Navy, having already completed 2 and a half years of duty in service. Independent, he lived in a small apartment in the centre of Athens, doing a job that he had chosen out of love.

Shortly before Easter 2005, however, he got ill with a fever that wouldn’t go away. After being admitted to the Navy Hospital, and being put through a series of tests, he endured a painful surgery – they took out a part of his lymph nodes in order to submit them for biopsy. When he woke up, the doctor called Christos to his office and, in the presence of his two assistant nurses, he announced that Christos was HIV positive. 

"On Easter Tuesday, you are going to present yourself in front of the High Committee for Health. You will probably be fired.” he said. The doctor also informed the Armed Forces’ Units where Christos was serving at the time that he was HIV positive, while a nurse had already spoken to a member of Christos’ family concerning the state of his health, even before he, himself, had been informed.

Christos will later take his case to the Greek Ombudsman, to the Medical Association of Athens, to the Centre for Disease Control & Prevention and to the Personal Data Protection Office. The only association that is going to take his case seriously and which is going to publish a report condemning the decision to fire him and the violation of the doctor-patient confidentiality is the Ombudsman. The Medical Association of Athens will answer that there was no violation, while the Personal Data Protection Office’s answer is still pending.

“When you first find out, the first thing that goes through your mind is that you are going to die. You are completely paralysed with fear. Sadly, in order to know about AIDS, you have to already have AIDS."

“The hearing with the committee lasted less than an hour,” Christos continues. They announced that he was being let go based on section 76 of the Presidential Decree 133. He was handed a paper with the number I4 on it and he returned home.

He was and is distraught with anger. "My presence at the hearing made no difference. Whether I had been there with my lawyer or not, it was the same thing. Everything happened so fast, that I was unable to react." With clenched teeth he describes how he lost his job and how his right to privacy was violated, as well as how he lost his apartment and was forced to return to his parents’ house in the countryside, where he was completely isolated and finally collapsed psychologically. “I had a decent life. I was a decent citizen, and then my life as I knew it changed completely. I was living off of the government subsidy for HIV positive people. All of my ex colleagues, and my family, knew the reason of my being let go. I felt dirty and infected. Later on, of course, I realised that I could have a completely normal life. But, it took time until I was finally able to recover."

Vagellis Mallios, lawyer and legal advisor of the HIV Individuals Association of Greece, “Thetiki Foni”, Positive Voice, knows Christos’ case well. “It’s clear that they wanted to get rid of him,” he tells me, moving his head condescendingly. He explains that law 3304 prohibits any kind of discrimination, in the public or the private sector, before or after being hired because of religious or other beliefs, disability, age or sexual orientation in the field of employment and occupation. “This law is a community directive, which means that it cannot be superseded. It is binding for Greece.”

Photo via Flickr/Tilemahos Efthimiadis

I asked him to explain how exactly Christos’ being laid off was justified. “When a legal act is judged, the principle of proportionality is used, which dictates the restriction of a right only in the absence of all other alternatives and considering there is no milder solution. According to the Presidential Decree, his release would be legal only if he had received treatment and the treatment had failed.” However, Christos was fired without ever receiving any kind of treatment. “ΗΙV did not affect his being able to do his job, he was able to work and if needed, he could be moved to another post”.

For the next 10 years, Christos will be in and out of the courts. But, his case would not only come at a psychological cost, but financially it would devastate him, as for judicial costs he would have to spend over 15,000 euros (£11,790).

He was justified three times by the Board of Appeals of Athens. Yet, all three times the decision of the Appeals Judge was cancelled. Every time, Christos went through the same, stressful, nonsensical, typical process, which he calls "an act": first, facing a committee that did not even take account of his physical presence and then, a raw notification of his being let go in a type of climate which was like: “Why did you come here again? To tell us what?” In fact, one time, Christos was not even informed about the hearing of the committee and the decision was made in his absence.

“On the third trial, they asked me for a medical opinion”, he says. “The doctor – an infectious diseases specialist – who was responsible for my care was a soldier doctor at 251 General Air force Hospital. In the medical referral he wrote that I was responding to the anti- retroviral therapy and that I was able to do any kind of job, something that the health committee chose to ignore”.

At the fourth trial, which was after one and a half years, Christos lost.

“I did not expect it. I lost the ground from under me,” he tells me, and his face darkens. “The army will lay you off if you are positive to HIV, without thinking twice. No questions asked. It has a culture and a way of doing things which excludes HIV positive individuals. Haven’t you heard the saying? Where logic ends, the army begins. There are many cases of soldiers who got fired because they were positive to HIV. I am the only one who has taken legal action. Currently, my case is at the Council of State and they are going to try it after, approximately, one year. If the decision is positive, the Greek state will be bound to perform it. If it is negative, my next and last step will be to take action to the European Court of Human Rights, which costs nothing in contrast to the Greek courts. That’s where I’ll put a full stop. That’s where we’ll finally see how legal the Greek Public State is and how impenetrable the Presidential Decree is in front of the European Law and Constitution”.

Greece was convicted on October 2013, for a similar case of an HIV positive individual being laid off in 2005, after demands being made by his colleagues to the company’s management. Andreas Mazarakis, representative of ‘Thetiki Foni’ notes that "despite the European conviction, the Greek legal work framework is still incomplete and in combination with the stigma, it is unable to cover vulnerable social groups, such as HIV positive individuals and as a result, discrimination is frequent and much more obvious than you’d think."

The Ombudsman and ThetikiFoni, receive complains of HIV positive individuals that concern not only similar cases of being laid off, but also the denial of medical care for HIV positive patients. “Recently, an HIV positive individual visited the on duty otolaryngology department in one of the biggest public hospitals of Athens, which happens to be a point of reference for people with HIV and they kicked him out,” Valegis Mallios states.

For this exact reason, Christos explains that when it comes to HIV you have to remain silent. “Greek society is blind. HIV is not transmitted by the air, it is not transmitted by the toilet or by dining with someone positive to HIV. Seropositive individuals do not pose a public threat.”  

“But is silence the answer?” I ask.

“In Greece, yes, it is the only answer. In another state, perhaps it’s not. The Greek state has to decide: does it want HIV positive individuals here or not?”

I try to make sense of how in 2014, so many people are dealing with this kind of discrimination, just because they are positive to HIV. "The case of the sex workers showed clearly Greece’s public attitude towards HIV," Vagelis Mallios says. "When the state itself creates panic as well as the impression that anyone who has HIV is a potential time bomb, it is rational that the citizens will treat HIV positive people that way. There is a turn towards conservativeness, especially towards anything related to human rights issues. This trend is depicted in our everyday life as well as the laws and their application, which in most cases, like in Christos’ case, is downright wrong."

“Greek society needs to finally learn that there are 9000 individuals positive to HIV living here. We are that many,” Christos tells me. He closes his eyes, putting his head on the pillow of the couch and smiling, he talks of what he is expecting will happen in the Council of State and about his faith on the independence of the Greek Justice System which has not been shaken, despite the fact that he has not been justified since 2005. 

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