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Criminal Case Against Pop Star for HIV Transmission Stirs Debate

A pop star on trial in Germany is facing charges of grievous bodily harm. The crime she is accused of is infecting a man with HIV when she knew she was carrying the virus. The criminalization of HIV transmission has been widespread across Europe and North America for decades and new laws are emerging across Africa. But many people say the laws are not helping to limit the spread of HIV.

Nadja Benaissa was 16 and pregnant when she found out she was HIV-positive. She went on to become a member of one of Germany's most famous girl bands, No Angels.

Benaissa, now 28 years old, is on trial in Germany facing criminal charges for sleeping with men without protection when she knew she was carrying the virus.

Her story has hit the headlines across Europe and has brought to the public eye an issue that raises a number of questions about the value of criminalizing HIV transmission.

Neil Cobb is a criminal law specialist at Britain's Durham University. He says public opinion on the whole favors criminal laws.

He says Western populations see it as a moral imperative to punish people who expose or transmit HIV to other. But in Africa, he says, the laws are seen as key to stopping the spread of HIV.

"In most cases, criminalization has been seen as a way in which to prevent onward transmission," said Cobb. "I think that is particularly because of the lack of easy access to treatment for HIV that actually it's been seen as a way to deal with the problem."

But many people who work to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS - including the prestigious United Nations group UNAIDS - say the laws are counterproductive.

Christine Stegling, senior advisor on HIV/AIDS at the International HIV Alliance, says the laws do not prevent onward transmission.

"Using criminal law leads to a situation where people feel even more stigmatized and where it is very likely that they are not going to be very open about their status," explained Stegling. "And ultimately it may lead to the fact that people feel that it is better not to know their status because they may be criminally liable if they do and therefore they won't go and test for HIV at all."

And, she says, criminal laws target certain communities disproportionately, especially women who will be tested during a pregnancy. She highlights the case of pop star Benaissa.

"I think it's a very typical situation because she was a young woman at the time that she learned about her HIV status," Stegling noted. "She learned about it because she was pregnant. She went to an anti-natal care facility and she decided not to disclose her status because she was scared of the stigma that is attached to it and she was particularly scared about the stigma that would be related to her child."

She says many people fear exposing their HIV-status because of the stigma that surrounds the virus. She says this is especially so in Africa, where people fear being excluded from their family or community or losing their access to property.

The Global Criminalization Scan collects information on laws criminalizing the transmission of or exposure to HIV transmission. According to its data, at least 600 people globally have been convicted on HIV exposure or transmission charges.

Half of those were in the United States. It is in the U.S., Canada, and Europe where the most convictions have taken place.

But the scan also shows that criminalization laws are spreading, especially in Africa. Moono Nyambe is part of the Global Network of People Living with HIV and has worked on the scan. She says some of the laws emerging in Africa are rigorous.

"Probably the thing that has been noted about some of the laws applied in Africa is the broadness of the provisions within those laws. Some of the laws make it possible for a woman to be prosecuted for transmitting HIV to her child," noted Nyambe.

But she says the laws in Africa are rarely used, the scan has documented only 10 convictions across the continent.