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The Greek Military Is Laying Off HIV-Positive Soldiers

The European Constitution forbids this kind of discrimination, but it's taken Christos years of fighting in the Greek courts to get even close to a legal ruling that says his dismissal was illegal.

by Vania Turner
Sep 23 2014, 7:30am

Photo via Flickr user US Army Europe Images

About ten years ago, Christos—who asked to remain anonymous—had a completely different life. He was a professional soldier in the Greek navy, having already completed two and a half years of duty in service. Independent, he lived in a small apartment in the center 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, 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 naval units in which Christos was serving at the time that he was HIV-positive, while a nurse had already spoken to a member of Christos’s family concerning the state of his health, even before he, himself, had been informed.

Christos would later take his case to the Greek ombudsman, to the Medical Association of Athens, to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, and to the Personal Data Protection Office. The only association that took his case seriously—and published a report condemning the decision to fire him, as well as condemning the violation of doctor-patient confidentiality—was the ombudsman. The Medical Association of Athens answered that there was no violation. 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 paralyzed 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 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 described 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. There, 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 for my being let go. I felt dirty and infected. Later on, of course, I realized that I could have a completely normal life. But it took time until I was finally able to recover."

Vagellis Mallios, a lawyer and legal adviser of the HIV Individuals' Association of Greece, “ThetikiFoni,” Positive Voice, knows Christos’s case well. “It’s clear that they wanted to get rid of him,” he told me. He explained 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 user Tilemahos Efthimiadis

I asked him to explain how exactly Christos’s being laid off was justified. “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 was in and out of the courts. His case would not only come at a psychological price, but it would devastate him financially, as he would spend more than $20,000 on judicial costs.

He was heard three times by the Board of Appeals of Athens. In each case the decision of the Appeals judge was canceled. Every time, Christos went through the same stressful, nonsensical process of facing a committee that did not even take account of his physical presence and then, shortly afterward, receiving the brusque notification that he has been let go. 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-disease 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 antiretroviral 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 told me. “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... 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, a year. If the decision is positive, the Greek state will be bound to pursue 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.”

In October 2013, Greece was convicted for a similar case—in which an HIV-positive individual was laid off in 2005, following demands his colleagues made of the company’s management. Andreas Mazarakis, representative of Thetiki Foni, notes that "despite the European conviction, the Greek legal framework is still incomplete, and in combination with the stigma, it is unable to protect vulnerable social groups such as HIV-positive individuals. 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,” Vagellis Mallios states.

For this exact reason, Christos explained 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 asked.

“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 tried to make sense of how, in 2014, so many people are dealing with this kind of discrimination. "The case of the sex workers clearly showed Greece’s public attitude towards HIV," Vagellis 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 toward conservativeness, especially toward 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’s case, is downright wrong."

“Greek society needs to finally learn that there are 9,000 individuals who are HIV-positive living here,” Christos told me.

He closed his eyes, putting his head on the pillow of the couch and smiling. He told me about what he expects will happen in the Council of State, and about his faith in the independence of the Greek Justice System, which has not been shaken.

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