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Sunday, 19 May, 2002, 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK
Prisoners vs journalists in Russia
Fourteen prisoners are suing the press in Ulyanovsk
Fourteen inmates of a high-security penal colony in Russia's Volga region have made Russian legal history by suing media organisations that published details of their medical records during a mass breakout earlier this year.

The 14 hit the headlines in January when they escaped from the Novo Ulyanovsk camp by digging a long tunnel under the compound fence.
Front page of Narodnaya Gazeta newspaper
Newspapers were full of the great escape

The incident caused a furore not only because the fugitives were serving long sentences for serious crimes, including murder and robbery.

They were all also reported to be infected with HIV.

Aids and HIV rates are high in Russia's overcrowded penal system, and the number of registered cases of infection in Russia as a whole has shot up in recent years.

According to official statistics, about 200,000 people are HIV-positive, 88,000 of whom were registered this year.

The prisoners had been living in a hut on the edge of the camp reserved for inmates infected with HIV and TB and had taken advantage of their isolation to dig the tunnel using aluminium spoons and makeshift tools.

They were all recaptured within days of their bid for freedom after an unprecedented man-hunt involving 1,000 law enforcement personnel, but during that time the media were filled with reports about the danger their HIV status posed to society.

Now the convicts are suing.

Novo Ulyanosk penal colony in January 2002
1,000 police took part in the man-hunt
A series of hearings has begun at the Ulyanovsk court, with the prisoners hoping to receive 200,000 roubles ($6,500) in compensation from journalists for the breach of medical secrecy, Russian NTV reported.

One defendant, Sergei Sharapov, was suffering from TB not HIV and wanted "justice to be restored", the television said.

The lawyer for another said his client had suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped receiving letters from his girlfriend and relatives as a result of the publicity.

But the judge ruled against Sharapov on the day NTV was in court.

And legal specialists believe the chances of the verdicts going the prisoners' way in the cases still to be heard are "virtually nil".

The feeling is that dangerous recidivists infected with HIV are outside the law, so "there's no need to give excessive consideration to such trivial matters as the observation of medical confidentiality", the report concluded.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

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