German pop star Nadja Benaissa, charged with infecting her boyfriend with HIV, has managed to escape jail. A court in Darmstadt, western Germany, handed her a two-year suspended sentence Thursday.
The singer had confessed to having unprotected sex and keeping her virus secret but denied intending to infect anyone during a trial that has sparked a media frenzy in Germany. The court convicted the 28-year-old Benaissa, a member of girl group No Angels, on one count of grievous bodily harm and two counts of attempted bodily harm.
The glamorous half-Moroccan singer made an emotional apology during closing arguments, telling the court: "I am sorry from the bottom of my heart. I would love to turn back the clock, but I can't."
According to the charge sheet, the defendant had unprotected sex five times between 2000 and 2004 with three men and did not tell them she was infected.
Benaissa was charged with grievous bodily harm, which could have led to up to 10 years behind bars, but both the prosecutors and the defence argued for a suspended sentence as she had admitted to the crime and said sorry.
Medical experts determined she had almost certainly infected one of her ex-boyfriends with the HIV virus, as they both had a strain of the virus that is relatively rare in Germany.
The case prompted a debate about trial by media and presumption of innocence in a country that partly for historical reasons is highly sensitive about privacy.
Respected news magazine Spiegel described the trial as a "witch hunt" and AIDS organisations expressed their concern that HIV carriers would feel pressured to take sole responsibility for safe sex.
"We are concerned about the result of the trial because it risks sending the message that you shouldn't get screened for the HIV virus because if you don't know, you're not liable," said Volker Mertens, spokesman for the German AIDS help association.
"The trial could also give the impression that an HIV carrier has a greater responsibility whereas we believe everyone should assume responsibility when it comes to sexual relations, for example by insisting on condom use," he added.
Lisa Power, policy director of the Terrence Higgins Trust, a well-known British AIDS charity, said Benaissa's age at the time of the first alleged incident should also be considered.
"It's a hell of a diagnosis to get at the age of 17. How many of us at the age of 17 haven't made a daft decision about our sexual and emotional life?" she said.
"I think there are some real issues about someone who was that young, and that confused."
The case also sparked intense media interest because the half-Moroccan singer shot to fame in 2000 thanks to a television talent show and went on to score a string of hits in central Europe.
No Angels split up in 2003, but reformed in 2007 and competed in the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest, coming 23rd out of 25 countries.