Johnson Aziga, 52, has become the first Canadian to be convicted of murder for spreading HIV. Seven of his partners were infected, while two died of AIDS-related cancers. Four others tested negative.
A resident of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Aziga was a former staffer at the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1996.
His trial began in October 2008. Among the first revelations made in trial proceedings are claims by Aziga's former girlfriends that he lied about his HIV status and continued having unprotected sex until the morning of his arrest in 2003.
A native of Uganda and former research analyst at the Ministry of the Attorney General in Ontario, he was diagnosed with HIV in 1996. He was counselled not to have unprotected sex and to tell partners of his health status, jurors heard during testimony from public health officials. Despite being served with an order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to wear condoms and inform his partners he had HIV, Aziga continued to have unprotected sex.
A jury of nine men and three women deliberated for 21/2 days before finding Johnson Aziga guilty Saturday on two counts of first-degree murder and 10 of 11 counts of aggravated sexual assault.
He was described as a callous man who "outright lied" about having HIV to women with whom he had sex, and in some cases convinced them condoms were no longer necessary.
Aziga's lawyers argued their client did not have the "mental wherewithal" to deliberately endanger his former lovers, citing a brain disorder, heavy drinking and post-traumatic stress.
But such defence was not found convincing, and Aziga was convicted. He is to be sentenced on May 7.
"It's certainly precedent-setting here in Canada because we now have a conviction for first-degree murder involving HIV transmission," Crown attorney Karen Shea told Ottawa Citizen.
Aziga was not the first Canadian ever to face criminal charges for knowingly exposing others to HIV. In an earlier case, Charles Ssenyonga of London, Ontario was prosecuted on the lesser charges of aggravated assault and criminal negligence causing bodily harm, although he died before a verdict was rendered in his case.
In the 1999 decision R. v. Cuerrier, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that people who knowingly exposed others to HIV through unprotected sex could be charged with a crime on the grounds that failure to disclose one's HIV status to a sex partner constitutes fraud.
Several Canadian courts have ruled that persons who are not informed that a sexual partner is HIV-positive cannot truly give consent to sex. As a consequence of this, the death of the two women is automatically considered to be murder instead of a lesser charge such as manslaughter.
However, there are those who argue prospects of such penalties might deter a significant number of people from being tested for HIV infection in the first place. After all, if you do not know that you are HIV positive, you cannot logically be accused of transmitting it deliberately.
"We need to recognize that the current criminalization of HIV transmission is not doing any good, and might even have the perverse effect of increasing HIV transmission by people who do not know or don't want to know that they are infected," says Dr. Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill AIDS Centre at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.
The failure to identify as many HIV positive people as possible will lead to higher rates of HIV spread than would otherwise occur. Research has also revealed that as many as 50 per cent of all new HIV transmissions are attributable to people who have only been infected recently. One reason for this is that levels of virus in the blood and sexual fluids are usually very high for about a six-month period following infection.
Delaying testing also means that many HIV-infected persons may not be diagnosed for several years after infection, thus giving the virus additional time to replicate and cause significant, often irreversible, damage to the immune system. This can sometimes result in life-threatening infections that might otherwise have been prevented. There are also concerns that failure to initiate anti-HIV therapy early may leave people more vulnerable to a variety of cancers.
Thus the key to a healthier society might lie in better awareness and timely intervention programme. Stigmatizing or criminalizing will surely have a negative impact.