On April 27, 2012, a few days before a general election that was to make headlines around the world, I was among many Greeks who were taken aback by an appalling and unprecedented spectacle that unfolded on our TV screens.
The mug shots and personal data of 31 HIV positive people, all of them women, paraded on the evening news and morning talk shows. According to initial reports, the women were prostitutes who had been arrested as part of a massive sweep operation by the Greek police, which released their photos upon orders from a prosecutor. Doctors from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention promised in interviews that more “health checks” would follow. Ministers, police and medical authorities defended the operation as an urgent move to protect men and their families from the spread of the virus. It was hard, at first, to grasp what was happening. My initial confusion, however, soon gave way to anger: the women were charged with a felony, namely the intent to cause “grievous bodily harm” to their alleged clients, even though no one stepped forward to sue them and claim that they had been infected. Only one woman seemed to have been caught in an illegal brothel. It was unclear whether the rest were prostitutes or whether any of them were victims of human trafficking. Greek and international human rights groups accused the authorities of a string of violations, including forced blood tests inside police stations. The numbers cited by news reports were staggering: hundreds had been rounded up. At least one was reportedly underage and most were Greeks in spite of initial rumors that they were all immigrants. Moreover, the bruises, cuts and marks on their faces and bodies were unmistakable signs of drug use, homelessness and destitution. These women were what is referred to in Greek as “human ruins,” a term that describes people living on the margins of society, abandoned, wrecked. In spite of immediate and strong reaction to these events, the arrests proved to be only the beginning. In the days that followed, the “HIV-positive prostitutes” were dragged to court in front of TV crews, led by officers wearing latex gloves and, shortly afterwards, to prison, where they were to sit awaiting trial for a charge typically brought against suspected rapists and murderers. What I was witnessing wasn’t an urgent move to protect the public; it was a witch-hunt.