ATHENS, Greece – Greek authorities announced the arrest Wednesday of 17 HIV-positive women who allegedly worked illegally as prostitutes, accusing them of intentionally causing serious bodily harm.
The names and photographs of 12 of the women were published on the Greek Police's website, angering human rights advocates who said it was unclear whether the women were aware they had HIV.
"This is an appalling violation of human rights and medical confidentiality ... an unprecedented action stigmatization," Positive Voice, a group that helps people with HIV, said in a statement.
The arrests come amid a crackdown on hundreds of unlicensed brothels around Greece, which recently toughened AIDS testing laws for prostitution in response to a sharp rise in AIDS cases last year. Prostitution is legal in Greece, with regular health checks for sex workers required. But authorities say only a fraction of brothels are operating with a license.
Health Minister Andreas Loverdos warned of a rise in cases of customers having sex without a condom for an additional fee.
"This is an exploded bomb," he said. "It is a problem that should have been limited but it now involves Greek society. It's a problem that we cannot erase but only try to contain."
The women were among 130 women screened for the AIDS virus by the state-run Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Hundreds more women are likely to be screened in the next few weeks.
The agency said it had received more than 1,500 calls from men inquiring about brothel safety and AIDS tests since the crackdown began over the weekend. It was unclear if anyone had been infected by the 17 women from Greece, Russia and Bulgaria who authorities said were arrested over the past four days.
According to the disease control center, 954 new HIV infections were reported in 2011, a 57 percent increase from the previous year. The spread of the virus between gay men remained the most common form of transmission, but the number of cases involving drug users increased 15-fold in 2011 to 241. Authorities say they are concerned about the overlap between drug use and illegal prostitution.
Greece will hold a general election Sunday, and Loverdos said he would call on the next government to criminalize unprotected sex at brothels.
"Let's make this a crime. It's not all the fault of the illegally procured woman, it's 50 percent her fault and 50 percent that of the client, perhaps more because he is paying the money," he said.
The Athens city government said at least 315 brothels are currently operating illegally in the Greek capital. The city renewed its call on the government to relax strict licensing rules.
Greece is the busiest transit point for illegal immigration in the European Union — and for human traffickers bringing women from Eastern European countries.