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Prisoner in African Jail Sues to Get HIV Meds

by Gillian Gotora
Saturday Sep 8, 2012
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An AIDS awareness campaigner and his lawyers said Friday they are taking a groundbreaking test case to Zimbabwe’s highest court to force police and prison authorities ensure HIV sufferers get their life prolonging medication.

Douglas Muzanenhamo said in papers filed at the Supreme Court that he was denied appropriate antiretroviral treatment in jail for three weeks last year and his condition veered toward death.

Muzanenhamo, who has been HIV-infected for 18 years, was freed without charge in March 2011 after police arrested bystanders at a lecture in Harare on the Arab Spring they claimed was in preparation for a revolt in Zimbabwe.

In court documents released Friday, he said he was kept in filthy cells making prisoners with HIV susceptible to fatal infections. He said he was held in solitary confinement for demanding his drugs.

Sudden changes in drug treatment over 48 hours are known to lead to a sharp deterioration in the body’s immune system, even if the drug is resume patients are at risk that the treatment will not be effective, leading to their death.

In the first lawsuit of its kind, citing as respondents Zimbabwe’s police and prison commanders, government ministers and the nation’s attorney general, the chief law officer, Muzanenhamo said on the day of his arrest officers at the main Harare police station didn’t allow him to call his family to bring medication he took twice daily to a precise timetable.

After lawyers intervened, his family brought medication two days later but they were kept by police and not given to him at the prescribed times. Then he was given a single prison issue tablet once a day that he was unfamiliar with.

In the court deposition, he said he was "totally dependent" on the drugs, along with a healthy diet, to stay alive.

He suffered hypertension and depression, fearing he was in "mortal danger" on an insufficient diet of black tea, corn gruel and beans in harsh prison conditions.

Since his HIV infection, Muzanenhamo has campaigned among fellow sufferers on hygiene and medical and dietary ways to be able to live a "happy and fulfilling life," he said.

Upon his arrest, the police ordered him to take off his jacket, socks and shoes and remain only with "one layer of clothing." He was put into a tiny cell for five days with no running water with 15 other inmates, sleeping on the floor without blankets.

He said was made to walk barefoot through "human excreta and dried blood all over the place."

"Walking barefoot significantly increases the likelihood of me contracting a life-threatening infection," he said in his Supreme Court deposition.

No official figures are available on deaths in the nation’s police cells and prisons.

Lawyers acting for Muzanenhamo said Friday his plight and that of thousands of other prisoners suffering from illness who do not get treatment was a cruel and inhuman denial of basic constitutional rights to life for many inmates, like Muzanenhamo, who had not been convicted of any crime.

Zimbabwe has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infections and AIDS.

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