'He strangled me, punched me several times, split my lip. And then I found out he gave me HIV too'
A woman from Novokuznetsk got in contact with journalists from AIDS.CENTER and the centre Nasiliyu.net (No To Violence). She was infected by her ex-partner, who used to beat her regularly. We are publishing her story as part of a discussion about the need or redundancy of punishment for the intentional transmission of HIV.
Once a year Natalia and her friend undergo medical screening, which includes an X-ray, visiting a GP and a gynaecologist, and tests for HIV, syphilis and hepatitis. She wasn't nervous before taking tests in November 2016. She had been in a monogamous relationship with a partner (already ex-partner by that point) for two years, she had never tried intravenous drugs and had never had surgery. So she was sure there was nothing to worry about.
At the beginning of December, the woman went back to get her test results. An infectious disease specialist told her that two analyses had detected HIV in her blood. Natalia immediately realised she had been infected by her ex-partner. 'The doctor asks me: "How do you think you got it? Do you know the source of infection?" I say it is my ex-partner, give her his surname. She enters it into her computer and says: "Right, he is registered with us." I don't know whether it's legal, but that's how I learnt about everything.'
Natalia went out of the medical centre and asked a man standing nearby for his phone to call her ex: 'He had blocked my number, but he answered a call from an unknown number. I said: "Hi. I have HIV." He replied: "Well, good for you," and hung up. I went to a bus stop, got on a bus, and then he sends a message to my number: "God bless!"'
'This is my way of teaching you about life'
She met Andrey in 2014. He lived in a neighbouring town called Prokopyevsk, a one-hour drive from Novokuznetsk. At first they travelled to one another, then Natalia moved in with him. 'He had a big flat with four rooms in Prokopyevsk, and I lived in a modest one-room flat, so most of the time we stayed at his place. But we lived at my expense - he was unemployed. Everything he had was given to him by his parents. I felt a bit uncomfortable about that, but hoped I would be able to motivate him to get a job and stand on his own feet.'
'I said: "Hi. I have HIV." He replied: "Well, good for you," and hung up. I went to a bus stop, got on a bus, and then he sends a message to my number: "God bless!"
Their relationship was tense. Every now and then Andrey would yell at Natalia and raise his hand against her. 'He didn't pin me down, kick me or punch me, no,' she recalls. 'But there was this constant poking, arm-twisting... Once he even threw a chair at me, but I dodged it.' One day he kicked the woman out of the car when they were in Kemerovo together, and she found herself left alone in a strange city wearing only a tank top and shorts, with no money or phone. 'Whenever we had a fight like that he would always say that I provoked him, that he is just hot-tempered, and I keep winding him up.' Sometimes he explained that what he was doing was for my own good: 'This is my way of teaching you about life. Accept it and stop fighting me.'
On March 8, 2016, Natalia and Andrey had their biggest fight of all. He got jealous because of a text message on Women's Day from Natalia's friend. 'He strangled me, punched me several times, busted my lip during the fight. I immediately left for Novokuznetsk where my friends met me and took me to an injury care centre. It was the first time I documented my injuries.'
That time Natalia decided not to file a police report as she didn't want to ruin her ex's life and make their story public. Besides, she believed that his continued violence was her fault, so eventually, she went back to him. They were together for another six months. Two months after their break-up, Natalia found out about her diagnosis.
'An awkward affair'
From that point until February 2017, Natalia suffered from serious depression. Her friends started to worry about her not showing any interest in life, so they took her to a psychiatrist. 'But I decided to hold off being treated by him and start seeing a psychologist first. Our consultations helped me realise that I had been in an abusive relationship the whole time.' Later, the woman spent a month in the Novokuznetsk Psychiatric Clinic: the doctors pushed for inpatient care and medicated treatment.
After being discharged from the clinic, she stayed in treatment, but on an outpatient basis. She kept on taking antidepressants, but her condition was still poor. She felt bad both mentally and physically, and it was hard for her to work. At that time, she worked in a housing management company. The job required her to communicate with people constantly, but Natalia really wasn't able to think straight at that time. In the end, she was asked to resign. She didn't try to object: of course, no one needed an employee like that.
'He strangled me, punched me several times, busted my lip during the fight'
In the meantime, she texted her ex-boyfriend she would take him to court for injuring and infecting her, and suggested that he should compensate her for the things he had damaged (ripped clothes, broken hair dryer), and pay back the money she had transferred to his account. It amounted to around 30,000 roubles.
When he found out about the potential lawsuits, Andrey came to Novokuznetsk to patch things up with Natalia. 'He started talking about marriage, saying he had plans for our future together. And I took him back. I'm not saying it was great, but I still had feelings for him. Still, I kept insisting that he would have to pay the damages anyway, even though we were back together.'
By September 2017, their relationship had started to deteriorate again. Andrey was getting ruder and raising his voice to her. She chose not to see how things would turn out this time. She came back home and filed two police reports for the intentional transmission of HIV (Article 122 of the Russian Criminal Code) and a death threat (Article 119 of the Russian Criminal Code). 'I got together all the medical certificates and other documents confirming I had been HIV-negative before I started seeing Andrey and that he had not told me about his HIV status.' But no criminal case was initiated because no legally defined crime had been committed. At the police station she was told they didn't need this and that it was 'quite an awkward case.'
The second criminal case was to be filed for battery (Article 116 of the Russian Criminal Code). However, after the woman filed a report and told the police her story, for some reason the case was reclassified as a death threat and dismissed 'for lack of criminal wrongdoing.' Natalia lodged a complaint on two occasions, but both times they were rejected. At this point, she gave up. 'It was frustrating to go to Prokopyevsk all the time, be sent pointlessly from room to room and listen to the employees shouting so that everyone in the police station could hear: "That's her, the one who has HIV. Yeah, the one the guy infected." I realised I couldn't take it anymore. I thought: I won't win my health back anyway, and I have no money left and my nerves are shattered.'
A controversial article
Article 122 of the Russian Criminal Code is one of the most ambiguous in the Criminal Code, as it doesn't contain a clear description of the circumstances under which criminal responsibility for HIV-positive people comes into force. That is, anyone who knew about their HIV-status and happened to transmit the infection (possibly involuntarily and even while using protection) could be prosecuted. 'When a person registers as HIV-positive, s/he signs an acknowledgement form saying that if s/he happens to transmit the infection, s/he will be criminally responsible for that. Usually, this type of acknowledgement is used as the basis for initiating a criminal case,' explains Liudmila Kiseliova, a lawyer. Natalia doesn't know if Andrey signed an acknowledgement like this when he was being registered, but he himself later revealed that he had known about his HIV-positive status since 2010.
'She filed a police report, but no criminal case was initiated. She was told that the police didn't need this and that it was "quite an awkward case.'
According to Anna Rivina, CEO at the centre for addressing the problem of violence Nasiliyu.net (No To Violence), HIV-status does affect women who are exposed to domestic and sexual abuse. 'Unfortunately, these things are intertwined: women who face abuse are more likely to become HIV-positive, and HIV-positive women are more likely to face abuse,' says Anna. 'So it turns out that a woman should be ashamed of the fact that, presumably, it is her fault, that she chose the wrong man, and that she is responsible for what happened to her. Along with that, she should be ashamed of her HIV-positive status. It's a double stigma. This situation once again demonstrates how women are left to deal with a problem alone. Neither the state nor society is willing to help her.'
The housing question
Almost a year later, in November 2018, law enforcement officers came to see Natalia. She learned from them that her apartment, which she bought with a mortgage from VTB bank, was now being seized; the court hearing had been held back in July. After she was fired, she wasn't able to pay the mortgage regularly and knew about the debt. However, no one informed her about the court session and the seizure of her apartment that followed.
Left without a job, she had started calling the bank. She explained that she had been making payments regularly for five years, but due to the circumstances, she could not continue paying the mortgage. She was always met with: 'Yeah, of course. Your application is being processed, we will contact you.'
Natalia contacted an attorney to learn if there was anything she could do to revise the decision. It turned out that the bank had the right to not notify the client about a decision made by the court. 'I really want to keep my apartment and I have never missed mortgage payments. What's more, I had called the bank immediately, I asked them to extend the mortgage period, to give me some time for payments. But no. Either I pay half a million, or my apartment is being sold and I get evicted.'
'So it turns out that a woman should be ashamed of the fact that, presumably, it is her fault, that she chose the wrong man and that she is responsible for what happened to her. Along with that, she should be ashamed of her HIV-positive status. It's a double stigma'
Natalia can't sell the apartment herself either: it has been seized, buyers are few and they are not ready for a complex transaction. She also failed to refinance the mortgage: she was denied at every bank she submitted an application to. 'Later on, on the advice of the law enforcement officer, I went to the VTB bank again, but I was told that there was nothing more that could be done.'
Natalia doesn't know when the apartment will be taken away. The law enforcement officers may come at any moment. Currently, she is trying to find a job so that she can at least support herself. 'I am registered at the public employment service, but they don't have any work for me so far. I applied for a job at one company, and they asked me to bring a medical report. It meant that I had to disclose my HIV-status, and I wasn't ready, especially after a recruitment consultant told me: "Well, it wouldn't be too hard for you to get a medical report, it's not like you have AIDS or something." Another company rejected me due to my age, but I don't want to name names.'
Currently, the woman is not officially employed, continues to take antidepressants (the clinic provides them for free), and has started taking ART. She lives on the unemployment benefit, which is 1,105 RUB (roughly $17) per month. Natalia hopes that in the next two weeks she will manage to find a suitable job. 'If it doesn't work out, I'll go and work as a cleaner for 9,000 rubles a month (about $138). I'm not sure though if I'll be able to survive or return my apartment on this salary.'
'It is difficult to imagine that this story will have a happy ending,' Rivina comments. 'First of all, statistics and legal precedents demonstrate this. Secondly, all the cases which received adequate court decisions required a lot of serious efforts from lawyers. For example, the case involving Galina Katorova. It is hard to say that the government will recognise its responsibility to protect a victim. But in any case you have to fight for your rights and try to restore a violated right. And, of course, publicity can have an impact. That's what we're hoping for.'
Cases where a man has intentionally infected a woman with HIV and been held responsible are indeed rare in Russia. However, recently, according to the press centre of the prosecutor's office of Bashkiria, the District Court of Ufa city found a 37 year old local guilty under the third part of Article 122 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (HIV infection of one or more people by a person aware of his or her disease) and sentenced him to six years' incarceration in an ordinary-regime correctional colony.
'The government is not interested in defending victims of domestic violence even when the legislation, though not the most progressive, allows it.'
And this is not a unique case, though Russian court sentences under Article 122 are infrequent, they are regular. Meanwhile, at the 22nd international conference AIDS 2018, held in Amsterdam in the summer of 2018, 20 leading world-renowned researchers unanimously claimed that scientific studies show that: the criminalisation of HIV transmission is inefficient and harmful.
Nowadays, in at least 68 countries, intentional HIV transmission or the non-disclosure of a positive-HIV status to a partner is punishable by law. This practice, including the stigma and prejudices associated with HIV, makes people more likely hide their status and less willing to ask for medical supervision.
Rivina considers Article 122 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation to be discriminatory. However, in her opinion, despite all the ambiguity of the Article, domestic abusers should be responsible for their crimes, when they intentionally make a victim's life worse. She is convinced that: 'The government is not interested in defending victims of domestic violence even when the legislation, though not the most progressive, allows it.'