HIV Hysteria: Pop Star Is No Angel, But Neither Are Prosecutors

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The trial of German pop star Nadja Benaissa, who is accused of infecting a sexual partner with HIV, is the culmination of a witch hunt against the singer. The case revolves around the question of who is responsible for safe sex and whether Benaissa, who was only 16 when she learned her HIV status, was a victim of the pressure of the music industry.

Photo Gallery: Nadja Benaissa on Trial Photos
DPA

Perhaps the case could have been settled with a simple penalty order, which would have avoided a trial. But that would only have been possible if five men -- a circuit judge, a chief prosecutor, an official solicitor and two detective superintendents -- had not met on April 2 of last year at the district attorney's office in the western German city of Darmstadt and decided to give the case such a high profile. Or if they had later found their way back to a more levelheaded approach. But once it had been set in motion, the stigmatizing witch hunt had to run its course.

During that fateful meeting in Darmstadt, the five men agreed on how they would proceed in the case of the German pop singer Nadja Benaissa, who is a member of the band No Angels, Germany's biggest girl group. In June 2008, a former boyfriend had accused Benaissa, who is HIV-positive, of infecting him with the virus by having unprotected sex with him four years earlier. On the evening of April 12 of last year, the defendant was to be arrested during a performance at the Frankfurt music venue "Nachtleben" and immediately brought before an investigating judge. For someone who had hoped to provoke a spectacular case, the charges against the celebrity pop star came at an opportune time.

On April 9, 2009, the chief prosecutor and the circuit judge discussed the planned arrest once again. Realizing that the singer's place of residence was "unclear" and that her performance in Frankfurt would be the only opportunity to apprehend her, they made a slight change to their plan. Instead of having Benaissa arrested after the concert, they decided it would be preferable to make their move before the performance. Fearing an angry reaction from her loyal fans, they also decided to avoid having her taken away through the crowd.

Instead, Benaissa was arrested near the entrance to the club, where fans were waiting in line for tickets -- a move clearly intended to stir up publicity. The investigating judge immediately ordered that Benaissa be remanded in custody. Apparently no one felt it was necessary to consider whether it was appropriate to take Benaissa into custody on the strength of a suspicion that allegedly stemmed from an incident that had happened five years earlier.

'Risk of Re-Offending'

The Darmstadt district attorney's office launched its second offensive on the first business day after Easter. Although it didn't provide the name of the singer in a press release it issued that day (her identity was already widely known after the Frankfurt arrest), it did state she was HIV-positive and that she was suspected of having "had unprotected sexual intercourse with three individuals in 2004 and 2006," and that she had allegedly failed to inform her partners about her infection. "With at least one of the partners, a test showed that he -- presumably as a result of the contact -- is now also HIV-positive," said district attorney Ger Neuber.

The investigators claim that the police had tried to approach the singer for months. "After that, we initiated further investigations when it became known, in the late phase of the undertaking, that two other men had also allegedly had unprotected sex with her," said Neuber. "This meant that there was a strong suspicion that she had committed a crime and that there was a risk of re-offending."

The tabloid newspaper Bild asked the logical question: "How many men has No Angels star Nadja infected?" And then it reassured its readers by writing: "Now Nadja is in pre-trial detention on suspicion of aggravated battery, to protect other men against infection!"

The disclosure of the most intimate details of the singer's sex life and, most of all, the questionable use of the "risk of re-offending" to justify her arrest -- whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? -- sparked a heated debate in the ensuing months among members of the legal system, the media and politicians. Suddenly the courts were barring reporting on a case that prosecutors had already deliberately thrust into the limelight. Whether the Benaissa case was truly about aggravated battery and the question of who had infected whom, which was completely unresolved at the time -- all of this was drowned out by the dispute over the limits of judicial public relations and the "pressing public need" to know "when someone uses her body as a biological weapon," in the words of Siegmund Ehrmann, a member of the German parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party.

Benaissa 'Trusted' Doctors

Now Benaissa is being tried in a juvenile court in Darmstadt, charged with one count of aggravated battery and three of attempted battery. On the first day of the trial, her lawyer, Oliver Wallasch, who appeared to be treating her gently as he accompanied her to the court, submitted a statement for his client in which he stated that the charges were "probably correct." Wallasch also stated that it was true that the defendant had known that she was HIV-positive since 1999, the year her daughter was born.

But doctors had apparently assured her that the risk of acquiring AIDS was close to zero, provided she remained sufficiently disciplined and remained under constant medical supervision. According to the statement, the doctors had told Benaissa that this also applied to the risk of infection "if the viral load was undetectable."

"I trusted those doctors," Benaissa insisted. But, she added, she "wrongly and, in retrospect, more than negligently" pushed the residual risk to the back of her mind and told herself that she would never become sick.

Then she addressed a sensitive issue. "I also thought that my respective partners also bore some of the responsibility to talk about and contribute to preventing infection by using condoms. In this respect, I neglected my own responsibility. Today I have to admit that this was a big mistake on my part."

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