Treatment Action Campaign Members File Manslaughter Charges Against South African Officials Over Lack of Access to AIDS Drugs
Members of the HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign yesterday in Sharpeville, South Africa, filed charges of manslaughter against the country's Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and Trade Minister Alec Erwin over not providing "adequate treatment for people with HIV," the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports (Golan, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 3/20). TAC has begun a week of nonviolent "mass civil disobedience" in the country to urge the government to provide HIV/AIDS drugs in public hospitals and clinics. The protest marks the first time in Africa that HIV/AIDS patients have broken the law en masse to demand treatment. TAC hopes that the protest campaign, set to coincide with Human Rights Day, will influence the South African government to agree to a framework treatment and prevention plan that was worked out at a National Economic Development and Labor Council meeting last year. TAC had asked that discussion of such a framework be completed by last year's World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2002. In addition, the group in November 2002 said it would launch a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign if the government did not take action on a drug plan by the end of February (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 3/20). The charge sheet states, "Both accused are charged with a crime of culpable homicide, in that during the period March 21, 2000, to March 21, 2003, in all health care districts of the Republic of South Africa, both accused unlawfully and negligently caused the deaths of men, women and children." The charges go on to claim that Tshabalala-Msimang and Erwin "also breached their constitutional duty to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the right to life and dignity of these people" (Chege, Reuters, 3/20). According to London's Guardian, the accusations are related to 16 "specific" deaths. The protestors accuse Tshabalala-Msimang of denying antiretroviral drugs to state hospitals and clinics and Erwin of "blocking" production of those drugs in South Africa (Carroll, Guardian, 3/21). Health Ministry spokesperson Jo-Anne Collinge said that it is "probably premature for us to comment on the basis of the information we have." Erwin was unavailable for comment, the AP/Chronicle reports (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 3/20).
During protests in Cape Town and Durban, protesters handed police a "people's docket" that called for the investigation into the death of "many thousands of people who died from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses, and whose deaths could have been prevented had they been given access to treatment" (Guardian, 3/21). In South Africa, people can file criminal charges with police, who then pass the accusations on to prosecutors who decide whether to press charges (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 3/21). The docket stated, "Both accused ministers knew that failure to provide adequate treatment including antiretroviral therapy for people living with HIV/AIDS would lead to their premature, predictable and avoidable deaths" (South African Press Association, 3/20). About 110 protestors were arrested in the Cape Town protests (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 3/20). TAC said that it will seek to have 600 people arrested during the week of protest action to symbolize the number of people in South Africa who die daily of AIDS-related conditions, and the group said it would "escalate" the campaign in a second week in April if the government "does not respond," the South African Press Association reports (South African Press Association, 3/20). TAC Co-Chair Mark Heywood said, "This is a sign that the campaign has escalated on our part and it's because people are dying every day" (Reuters, 3/20). He added, "This is just the first shot in the campaign. Later on we will have sit-ins and occupy government buildings" (Guardian, 3/21).