Saturday, November 13, 2010

HIV discrimination law fails in China

From The NY Times:

BEIJING — In a rare, public test of the nation’s law prohibiting discrimination against people with H.I.V., a Chinese court on Nov. 12 ruled against a man who said he was wrongly denied a teaching job after his prospective employer learned he had the virus that causes AIDS.

The man who filed the lawsuit, a 22-year-old college graduate, had passed a battery of written tests and an interview when a mandatory blood test revealed his H.I.V. status, prompting the local education bureau in the eastern city of Anqing to reject his application.

“I’m heartbroken,” said the man, who used the alias Xiao Wu in legal papers to protect his identity. “I just wanted to find some justice for me and for others facing the same problem.” Lawyers for the man said they would appeal.

In his ruling, the judge agreed with the education bureau’s contention that regulations barring H.I.V.-infected civil servants trumped a four-year-old law that was supposed to protect people with the virus from the prejudice of employers. That measure, passed by the State Council, the government’s chief administrative body, states that “no institution or individual shall discriminate against people living with H.I.V., AIDS patients and their relatives.”

Li Fangping, a lawyer who argued Xiao Wu’s case during a three-hour trial last month, said the judge’s decision defied logic. “It’s an example of how the legal system enhances and expands discrimination against people who are H.I.V. positive,” he said.

People with AIDS have increasing access to medical treatment in China, but they are widely shunned and often barred from universities, state jobs and private corporations. The ostracism has serious implications: in a report last year, the United Nations said fear and ignorance kept many of the estimated 740,000 Chinese infected with H.I.V. from seeking treatment.

The government has come a long way since the 1990s, when it went to great lengths to cover up a scandal in which thousands contracted the disease at state-run transfusion programs.

These days, people with AIDS have access to free antiretroviral drugs, and China’s top leaders, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, make a show of consoling people with AIDS each World AIDS Day. The government earlier this year lifted a ban on H.I.V.-infected foreigners’ visiting China.

But AIDS advocates say they face a wealth of restrictions that make it hard to carry out grass-roots activities. Wan Yanhai, the founder of the AIDS organization Aizhixing Institute, moved to the United States last May, claiming government harassment had made it impossible to carry out his work.

On Thursday, Beijing Loving Source, a children’s AIDS charity founded by the jailed dissident Hu Jia, announced it was shutting down after repeated scrutiny by the tax authorities.

In a closely watched case, Tian Xi, an AIDS activist who contracted H.I.V. through a blood transfusion, is awaiting sentencing in Henan Province on charges that his protests against the hospital responsible for his infection resulted in property damage.

In a way, the legal travails of Xiao Wu had been a bright spot for AIDS activists, who for years had seen a series of job-discrimination lawsuits rejected by Chinese courts before going to trial. Domestic media coverage of the case has been sympathetic, and given the central government’s laws against discrimination, legal advocates hoped a positive outcome would set a precedent.

Last month, an H.I.V.-positive college graduate, who was encouraged by Xiao Wu, filed a similar case in Sichuan Province.

Now advocates worry that Friday’s ruling will have the opposite effect, providing legal cover for employers who do not want to hire people with H.I.V.

“This is bad news, given that it was the first time an H.I.V.-positive person dared to stand up for his rights,” said Yu Fangqiang, an AIDS advocate whose organization, Beijing Yirenping, provided free representation to the defendant. “The entire H.I.V. community had high hopes, but now the door appears to be shutting for people who want to use the courts to fight against discrimination.”