The rounding up of hundreds of women in Athens followed by the parading of the photographs of 30 ‘HIV-infected prostitutes’ in May last year had all the hallmarks of a politically-orchestrated campaign.
The media frenzy that erupted in the run-up to the May 2012 general elections quickly died down once the elections had begun – but those who have turned out in their hundreds to see a new independent documentary detailing this modern day witch hunt, are an indication that this “sweep” was more than a passing episode.
Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt is an account of how in the week before last year’s pivotal May elections, police rounded up hundreds of alleged prostitutes from central Athens and, with the cooperation of state medics, subjected them to forced HIV tests.
The 53-minute film is directed by actress, playwright and screenwriter Zoe Mavroudi, and includes interviews with two women who were picked up and subsequently charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm. There are also interviews with the women’s mothers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, academics and activists who campaigned for their release.
Mavroudi, who currently lives and works in London, contrasts the willingness of the women to take part in the film with the refusal of any of the politicians who sanctioned the crackdown.
“The women had obviously been through a lot, but were incredibly brave and willing to share what happened, which of course is the opposite of what the politicians were doing, which is hiding and pretending it didn’t happen,” she says. “It was a craven, cowardly act.”
It is widely believed that the arrests were an attempt to deflect criticism over new figures showing a massive rise in new HIV infections in the country.
As Greece faces savage austerity measures, health workers have blamed deep cuts to needle exchange programmes for the rise. But with their eyes on the polls, government officials instead initiated the crackdown on the city’s sex workers.
The two women who appear in the film describe the impact on their lives of being detained, forcibly tested and then having their mug shots and full-length photographs paraded online and in national newspapers and on news bulletins, together with their names, the names of the parents, and where they were from.
This move was authorised by a prosecutor in order to warn the “thousands” of “family men” who purportedly had sex with the women to contact the authorities for health checks and treatment.
Despite the lack of evidence that they were prostitutes, the media promptly published the photographs, labelling the women as “HIV prostitutes” who were spreading death, while television channels trailed their news bulletins with the promise of more pictures.
Mavroudi says such blatant breaches of human rights by the Greek state and the mass media was a turning point in the Greek crisis, a signal that that the government was now turning against its citizens:
“It was like a message from the government, almost like a public announcement, that the crisis would no longer be reflected in charts and numbers, but it had gone into the body, that it would enter our private lives.”
The media’s interest in the story quickly fizzled out amid the drama of the elections, and there was little coverage of the international backlash against the government when groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused it of violating human rights and medical confidentiality.
The legal provision that allowed the mass arrests of HIV-positive women was repealed in May this year, but quietly reinstated in July with little comment from the mainstream media. The fact that eight of the women were acquitted in previous months also attracted scant coverage.
“The story went off the radar, it was forgotten,” says executive producer Theodora Oikonomides. “But what we’re seeing at the screenings is that people have not forgotten and are still very angry about it.”
Mavroudi is also critical of the media for slavishly reporting the story and for irresponsibly passing on inaccurate information about HIV:
“They said the women were spreading death and failed to question anything that was happening at all,” says Mavroudi. “The mainstream media at this point just acted as stenographers for the state.”
But in a week when protests erupted across Greece sparked by the murder of hip-hop artist and anti-fascist campaigner Pavlos Fyssas, both Mavroudi and Oikonomides believe the film has attracted so much interest because of ongoing concerns about the government, the police, the legal system and the medical profession.
“To me it represents everything that is wrong in Greece – everything that could go wrong for these women went wrong, and they were abused by every form of power” says Oikonomides. “The real question is what society do we really want to live in, do we want to live in a society where people who belong to any kind of minority can be abused by the people in power.”
It was partly frustration that so few people outside Greece knew about the incident that compelled Mavroudi to make the film, and after the current round of screenings in Greece, the film will have its premiere in London next month.
“It’s very important that people outside of Greece see this movie because I really believe that the politicians governing Greece must be exposed for what they are,” says Oikonomides. “Pillorying vulnerable people in this way is the sort of practice you would expect from Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, but this is happening now, in the European Union, and I think it needs to be made clear that the loans Greece is receiving from European taxpayers’ money are indirectly supporting this sort of practice.”
A version of this article first appeared on HuffingtonPostUK.
Another interview with filmmaker Zoe Mavroudi Did the press comply with an HIV witch-hunt in Greece? was published in the New Statesman on 7 November.