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UWI sacks professor Bows to gay, human rights groups

BY VERNON DAVIDSON Associate editor - publications davidsonv@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, May 21, 2014    

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THE University of the West Indies (UWI) yesterday announced that it has sacked Professor Brendan Bain as director of the Regional Co-ordinating Unit of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network, echoing a view by gay and human rights activists that he has lost the confidence of the programme's target community.

The UWI publicised its decision two days after the Sunday Observer reported that a coalition of 33 lobby groups from across the Caribbean had been advocating Bain's removal because of expert testimony he gave in a constitutional challenge brought by a gay Belizean man against that country's criminal code in September 2010.

Caleb Orozco had argued that the code, which states that "every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years", violates his right to the recognition of human dignity, to personal privacy and the privacy of the home guaranteed by the Belize constitution.

In August 2012, Professor Bain offered expert testimony in the case on behalf of a group of churches seeking to retain the 1861 law.

Bain, regarded as a pioneer in clinical infectious disease practice in the Caribbean and a leading medical authority on the HIV epidemic in the region, pointed out in his testimony that the risk of contracting HIV is significantly higher among men who have sex with other men (MSM).

He said this was true for Belize, as well as other countries, including those that have repealed the law that criminalises anal sex.

"The risk to MSM and their intimate sexual partners is not just to their physical health. The adverse physical and physiological consequences of STIs (including HIV) in MSM create significant and avoidable financial costs to individuals, households and governments. These important considerations must be included when considering whether to give public approval to risky behaviours such as are often practised by MSM," Bain said in his testimony.

But those views, which Bain made clear were his and not the UWI's, angered the lobby groups who have been pressuring the university to cashier Bain on the basis that they represent a conflict of interest.

Yesterday, the UWI said, "Many authorities familiar with the brief presented believe that Professor Bain's testimony supported arguments for retention of the law, thereby contributing to the continued criminalisation and stigmatisation of MSM. This opinion is shared by the lesbian, gay and other groups who are served by CHART".

According to the UWI, "the majority of HIV and public health experts believe that criminalising men having sex with men and discriminating against them violates their human rights, puts them at even higher risk, reduces their access to services, forces the HIV epidemic underground thereby increasing the HIV risk".

The university said that while it recognises Bain's right to provide expert testimony in the manner he did, "it has become increasingly evident that he has lost the confidence and support of a significant sector of the community which the CHART programme is expected to reach, including the loss of his leadership status in PANCAP (Pan Caribbean Partnership against AIDS), thereby undermining the ability of this programme to effectively deliver on its mandate".

On Monday, Dr Carolyn Gomes, executive director of Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), and Ivan Cruickshank, the group's finance manager, raised that same argument in an interview with the Jamaica Observer.

Dr Gomes said that when the CVC learnt that Bain was thinking of putting in the affidavit, he was approached and asked not to do it.

"We sat down with him and said this is at complete variance with your role in CHART," Gomes said. "You're leading a programme that says stigma and discrimination are wrong... If you put in an affidavit that says you're for discriminatory laws, how can you lead the programme?"

Cruickshank said that some of Bain's colleagues who are working in the same field were approached to engage him on the issue.

Asked what Bain's response was to those efforts, Cruickshank said he was not the one who engaged the professor, however, he learnt that Bain raised the issue of his conscience on the matter.

"He didn't see the negative type of implications that were being pointed out to him, because in his view he was providing a sort of biomedical representation of information," Cruickshank said.

Gomes interjected: "He hadn't thought about the effect it might have had."

She added: "None of this is aimed at Brendan; it's aimed at the position taken... it's about how can the university have a credible programme against stigma and discrimination... led by somebody who is saying in public, not in private, keep the stigma and discrimination."

Colin Robinson, manager of Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS), one of the lobby groups in the coalition, agreed.

"We're not asking UWI to hold Professor Bain to any lesser standard than Dr Gomes' board or mine would hold us," he said.

"We can't just run off and do things in private and still want to hold positions that have particular values and principles attached to them, and that's the simple matter that brought this large swathe of organisations together... it's about protecting the leadership of the HIV epidemic in the region. We can't have people who are not adhering to those principles leading this, and UWI's leadership is important," Robinson said.

Gomes, Cruickshank and Robinson reiterated that their objection to Bain's testimony was not intended to stifle his academic freedom to voice his scientific opinions.

"We don't have a scientific freedom issue, we don't have an opinion issue, we have a conflict of interest issue, so Professor Bain is free to keep any opinion he wants," Gomes said.

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