Singer, Nadja Benaissa, was put on trial in Germany last week for grievous bodily harm and attempted bodily harm. Benaissa, 28, achieved stardom in Germany in the early 2000's when she won a place, via a reality television show, in a girl band called No Angels. No Angels, a surprisingly diverse Spice Girls like pop group, went on to become Germany's most popular musical act of the era. After a break, the group reunited in 2007, participated in the extraordinarily popular Eurovision competition and released a new album last summer.
So how did this pop princess become the subject of a criminal prosecution? In 1999, Nadja, who at 17 already had a history of crack cocaine abuse, was diagnosed with HIV. The diagnoses came following a routine pre-natal screening. Nadja did not disclose her HIV status to at least three sexual partners between 2000 and 2004. One of those partners is now HIV positive. As a result of his complaint, Benaissa is being prosecuted for spreading HIV.
Until recently, Benaissa had little notoriety outside of her native Germany, but her celebrity status has brought international attention to her case and the criminalization of HIV. The world has been living with the effects of HIV/AIDS for thirty years, but the complex nature of the disease has forced us to confront evolving social challenges. With access to antiretroviral drugs, HIV is no longer a death sentence. However, the psychological trauma and stigma attached to HIV continue to make it an albatross upon the developed world. HIV may be manageable, but most would never want to contract the disease. Should societies prosecute the transmission of HIV as a criminal offense, where one party is the perpetrator and the other is the victim? Or should the responsibility of HIV infection be shared between the parties without criminalization? This approach recognizes that the liability for transmission is 50/50.
The effectiveness of criminalizing HIV positive people for infecting their partners should be of particular interest to Americans since the majority of known HIV/AIDS prosecutions have taken place in the United States. Many AIDS advocacy organizations including Gay Men's Health Crises and POZ Magazine say that criminal prosecution further stigmatizes people living with HIV and that prosecution discourages HIV testing as only those who know their status are likely to be prosecuted.
According to UNAIDS, the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, "there is no evidence demonstrating that broad application of criminal law to HIV transmission achieves criminal justice or prevents further infections." In the recently released "National HIV/AIDS Health Strategy for the United States" President Obama's administration acknowledged that punitive measures "may undermine the public health goals of promoting HIV screening and treatment."
Not every HIV transmission can possibly result in prosecution, so what role will subjectivity and discrimination play when HIV is criminalized? Nadja Benaissa was born in Germany, and is a German citizen, but her looks do not conceal her Northern African heritage. This has lead some to wonder what role ethnicity and perhaps gender will play in the outcome of her trial.
There are valid arguments that show the potential counter productivity of criminalizing HIV when the issue is viewed from a societal perspective. But on an individual level, isn't it natural for an infected person to seek out some form of redress, especially when they believe that they were lied to by omission or commission? This appears to be the genesis of the Benaissa prosecution.
Nadja Benaissa admitted in court last week that she did have unprotected sex even though she was aware of her HIV status. She apologized for her actions, but maintained that she did not intentionally infect anyone with HIV. It is difficult to understand that reasoning, but it makes the question of malice unclear in this case. At minimum, Benaissa has admitted to conducting herself with a sense of recklessness.
Reports indicate that if Nadja Benaissa is convicted she is likely to receive a suspended sentence. Now that her HIV status has been revealed maybe she will take on an advocacy role. Using her celebrity status to curtail the stigma attached to HIV, to which some believe her trial has contributed.