Remembering How Greece Used HIV to Terrorize Sex Workers

In April 2012, the Greek police carried out a massive operation in downtown Athens, arresting drug users and sex workers, forcing them to undergo HIV testing and charging them with prostitution. A year later, that provision was reinstated.

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Oct 30 2013, 3:20pm


One of the arrested sex workers giving an interview for Ruins

In the spring of 2012, after a raft of health-sector budget cuts, the Greek Health Ministry arrived at a shocking conclusion: the rate of HIV cases had increased by 60 percent in just one year. To tackle this, in April 2012, the Greek police carried out a massive operation in downtown Athens, arresting drug users and sex workers, forcing them to undergo HIV testing and charging them with prostitution. All of this happened with the blessing of the health minister at the time, Andreas Loverdos, who it seems was trying to save his party's plummeting popularity ahead of the national elections that were to take place in May 2012.

The Greek media, complicit in the witch hunt and led by the PASOK government, made sure thepictures and names of the women arrested were released everywhere; on TV, newspapers, and online. In the meantime, the women, who were awaiting trial in a maximum-security prison, had no idea any of this was going on. Eventually the charges collapsed, but the stigma remains. Given the initial round of health-sector cuts included the cancellation of a number of needle-exchange programs, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the number of HIV cases in Greece has risen 200 percent since 2011.

A year later, Loverdos’s political career seems to be over but provision 39A—which allows forced HIV testing on suspected sex workers, undocumented migrants, and drug addicts—has been reinstated. Convinced that this is a story worth remembering, I spoke with Zoe Mavroudi, director of a documentary called Ruins: Chronicle of a HIV Witch Hunt, which focuses on the story of two of the women caught up in this awful mess.

VICE: Zoe, why did you decide to make this documentary?
Zoe Mavroudi: I hadn’t done anything similar before; this is my first documentary. I felt like this was the only way to get the story out in a striking way. I didn’t think any written piece would do it justice; there had to be a visual recording of what really happened.

Can you recall the public's reaction last year, when the story first broke?
At the time, there was a poll showing that 80 percent of the people agreed with the government's actions. That was a horrible act of propaganda; they asked an audience of misinformed and surprised people to weigh in. In the film, you see these women speaking honestly and coherently. I feel it's helped them regain some ground, to reclaim their story.

Have any people changed their minds after watching Ruins, as far as you know?
Yes. One person approached me saying, “I had made up my mind at the time, but now I don’t think that what they did was right.” And it doesn't mean that these people belong to the far right or anything like that. It was people who would normally be "on our side," who had been convinced by the state’s propaganda.

I don’t think it’s just that we show facts that go against government spin that makes people rethink the case, either. It's not just the arrests and the charges of prostitution that collapsed, as only one woman was found to be a sex worker in the end. It’s that people don’t realize the consequences of such actions. That these women were shamed and pretty much tortured during the process can’t leave you unaffected.

Where do you think we stand now?
HIV is not the biggest issue in Greece at the moment. We are all potential victims of a flatlining health system. Cancer treatment is becoming impossible, other infectious diseases, drug addiction, so many things. Friends who work with drug rehabilitation centers told me that looking at their paperwork, they keep seeing people falling back into drugs.

And what about the women themselves?
The fact that some of them were found innocent, after being held in prison in abhorrent conditions, doesn’t necessarily mean it's over for them. They weren’t aware of the shaming taking place outside, and that now contributes to their fears. Even after they were released—and the case made headlines—one of them told me she wasn’t able to get disability benefits. It looks like the state believes that you’re not entitled to any compensation for being shamed and thrown in jail for ten months.

The whole process was carried out so carelessly that they never cross-checked the names and details of the women. One of them gave a wrong name under the influence, and now Greece is being sued by a woman who was never even arrested for slander.

Do you see any positive outcomes to this? Do you think any officials will be prosecuted, for instance?
I hope they will get awarded some compensation. I don’t know if anyone will be punished. That would be a first for Greece’s legal history. But this is a unique case already. Eleven of the women and four NGOs are suing the organization that carried out the operation. Some of the NGOs were funded by that organization in the past. This has never happened before.

I hope this sets a new paradigm for how we deal with cases of human rights violations. I hope the publicity the state chose to give this case will come back to haunt them. They turned it into a witch hunt, and they tried to make an example out of these women. I hope the European Court of Human Rights now makes an example of them.

Ruins will premiere in New York on November 8.

Follow Ruins on Twitter: @Ruins_Doc 

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