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South African Court to be Asked to Order AIDS Drugs for Inmates

In South Africa, a court hearing is set for next month on whether the government should be required to provide anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive prison inmates.The case centers on some inmates at the Durban-Westville Correctional Center but has implications for inmates throughout the country.

The legal challenge at the Durban High Court is being brought by the AIDS Law Project. Michelle Govender is an attorney for the group. From Johannesburg, she spoke to English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about why the legal action is being taken.

“We are an HIV organization. We specialize in HIV work or discrimination based on HIV. And therefore when the matter came to our attention we felt that it was a matter that was important enough in terms of what was required by the prisoners, who have human rights as well.”

Asked how many inmates at the facility need anti-retrovirals, Govender says, “What we were told last year by the Department of Correction Services was that about 50 of the inmates require anti-retroviral treatment. We believe and we have been told by the HIV and AIDS support group from within the prison that the figure is much higher.”

Many published reports have mentioned 15 inmates, but that’s because those inmates are actually involved in the court case.

The minister of Correctional Services, Ngconde Balfour, has released a statement calling the legal action “opportunistic.” His spokesman is quoted in the newspaper as saying, “It is sad and regrettable that the urgent court application comes in the wake of fruitful interventions by the minister…to ensure that the inmates are able to receive treatment at accredited sites.”

Govender responds, “Firstly, what does he define as fruitful. Secondly, whatever interventions that he’s been doing we certainly aren’t aware of. I met with our clients yesterday (Wednesday). And at that time none of the 15 people had started receiving anti-retrovirals.” The court hearing is set for May 3rd, at which time the AIDS Law Project will ask for the immediate treatment of the inmates.