“This was not, contrary to what sections of society wanted us to believe, a case against those living with HIV.” Ugandan Judge Rugadya Atwoki, on the case of Rosemary Namubiru
The judge who weighed Rosemary Namubiru’s appeal on a conviction of “doing a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease” stemming from a workplace accident early this year, described his deliberations in an 18-page document that repeatedly recounts the incident that led to the nurse’s arrest. He weighs two versions of the events, how a feverish child struggled to avoid an injection, how the needle pierced the nurse’s finger, drawing blood in the course of the struggle, how the nurse stopped to wash and bandage the finger, and returned to trying to administer the injection. The two versions of the story, one from the child’s mother, one from the nurse, differ in only one regard, with the mother saying the nurse used the same needle, and the nurse saying she believed she picked up a different needle.
The appeal court judge’s document does not recount what happened next: Namubiru’s arrest on a charge of attempted murder, her head pulled back to show her face to the journalists she was paraded in front of, her detention without bail for five months before and during her trial. He does not note that during her trial antiretroviral medicine police seized from her home was used as evidence against her, although it was likely controlling her virus and reducing the odds of it being transmitted. He makes no reference to the media coverage through all of it that at its worst referred to Namubiru as “Killer Nurse,” and “Baby Killer,” that routinely referred to her as “HIV Nurse” and that, diverging widely from the facts of the case, accused her of withdrawing blood from her arm to deliberately infect the child, reported that the child was infected although he was not, and, even after the charge against her was dropped and exchanged for a charge of negligence, abandoned all logic and reported that she was tried and convicted of negligence for “intentionally trying to infect the child,” referring to her conviction in the “HIV transmission case.”
The judge leaves it unclear to whom he is referring when he wrote the case “was not, contrary to what sections of society wanted us to believe, a case against those living with HIV.”
The appeal court judge did, however, make note of the sentence given to this 64-year-old nurse, to spend three years in prison for a workplace accident, and wrote: “having anxiously considered the need not to interfere with the discretion of the sentencing court, I was satisfied nonetheless that the circumstances of this case requires a sentence lighter than that meted out by the trial court.”
Her sentence reduced then to the time she already had served, Namubiru stood outside, looked into television cameras, and said “To the media, I forgive you.” But she added, she would take the pain of reading the accusation that she had deliberately withdrawn blood from her vein to inject it into the child, to her grave.
The headlines of stories about her release included:
HIV offender nurse released from jail (“A Ugandan court has released a woman who was convicted of attempting to infect a child with the HIV virus by pricking her with a contaminated needle,” the story in This is Africa reports, adding that she was convicted for “pricking a baby with an HIV-infected device she’d first used on herself.”)
Nurse Accused of Infecting Baby with HIV Freed (“The Kampala High Court has set free Rosemary Namubiru, 64, a nurse who was earlier convicted for reportedly infecting a baby with HIV AIDS . . ” this ChimpReports account reads.)
How Namubiru Was Miraculously Freed in newsUganda also reports that she pricked the child with a needle “she had earlier used on herself.”
All of these are mild compared to the days of the trial when her case was cited, illogically, to support the parliament’s proposed HIV Prevention and Control Act specific criminalization of HIV transmission (which has since been signed into law). But it remains tragically ironic that a case which the appeals court judge insisted “was about reckless, negligent behavior on the part of health care providers,” remains the object of reckless, negligent behavior on the part of news reporters.