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(New York) - By imposing house arrest on potential petitioners to the National People’s Congress, the Chinese authorities are preventing people living with HIV/AIDS from seeking redress for a government blood sales scheme that left hundreds of thousands of people infected with HIV in Henan province, Human Rights Watch said today.

More than 20 Chinese civil society organizations reported that numerous people living with HIV/AIDS in Henan were put under house arrest to keep them from bringing their petitions to the Congress, which opened in Beijing on March 5. In the 23 cases documented, people have been confined to their homes and monitored around the clock by police outside their doors.

“People infected with HIV through unsafe practices at government clinics have routinely been denied medical treatment and compensation,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Now they can’t even tell their story to policymakers who might be able to help.”

Members of an organization of people living with HIV in Henan’s Ningling county were reportedly prevented from attending a training session on HIV-prevention strategies because they had been put under house arrest. Moreover, in Suiping county, the director of a home for children whose parents are ill or deceased from HIV/AIDS has had to close his orphanage because of his house arrest and find other ways to care for the children.

In the 1990s blood scheme, the Henan provincial authorities encouraged hundreds of thousands of low-income farmers to sell their blood, from which lucrative plasma was isolated and sold on the global market. To prevent anemia among those who donated blood frequently, the red cells left when the plasma was separated from the blood were pooled and re-injected into the donors’ arms without being screened for HIV or other blood-borne diseases.

Human Rights Watch reported in 2003 that while the earliest of these cases of HIV transmission were inadvertent, the provincial authorities continued the practice in some locations even after it was known that HIV and other diseases had been transmitted in this way Beijing acknowledged the problem in the late 1990s and ordered the phasing out of the blood collection centers, but many continued to operate. It is estimated that thousands of rural dwellers died, in some cases virtually wiping out whole villages.

“People with HIV/AIDS who are left untreated by the authorities face death sentences because they heeded the government’s call for blood,” said Joseph Amon, director of Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS Program. “The current house arrests follow earlier reports of police abuse and arrest of people with HIV/AIDS in Henan who sought treatment and compensation.”

In December, Chinese national health officials met for the first time with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking some assurance that those infected in the blood scheme would be compensated. No commitments were made, but when NGOs reported that the courts in Henan would not even hear cases of people with HIV/AIDS seeking compensation, Health Minister Gao Qiang was quoted in the international press as saying that the courts should admit those cases and make fair judgments.

“When U.N. officials and outside donors are listening, the Chinese authorities consistently pledge greater openness in dealing with HIV/AIDS,” said Adams. “But their actions tell a different story. The government is silencing those most able to lead China in an effective response to HIV/AIDS, the people who are living with the disease themselves.”

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