AIDS activists allege discriminatory treatment following Capitol arrest

AIDS activists are challenging what they view as unfair treatment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office stemming from a protest of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last year.

On Wednesday, AIDS activists and legal experts gathered on the steps of the Wilson Building downtown, calling on U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen to drop the charges against their associates.

On April 11, a dozen activists were arrested by U.S. Capitol Police outside Cantor’s office for protesting cuts to international and domestic HIV/AIDS program funding. The protesters were charged with unlawful conduct, a misdemeanor.

Later that same day, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. City Council Chairman Kwame Brown were among 41 people arrested outside the Capitol for protesting riders to a federal budget bill that would dictate District spending. All were charged with unlawful assembly.

Though the crimes were similar, AIDS activists Wednesday alleged that the resultant treatment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office had been far from equitable.

“Unlike the mayor and the City Council chairman, who were given a $50 fine and let go home, we have now been through nine months, five court appearances and three different prosecuting officials, each of whom have brought in new requirements [and] made new demands,” said Mathew Kavanagh, one of the arrestees.

“We are deeply worried that new policies under the U.S. Attorney Ron Machen are criminalizing dissent, and are targeting specifically those who can least afford to be targeted, and targeting those who are HIV-positive,” he added.

Kavanagh alleged that he and his fellow defendants had been asked to stay away from the Cannon House Office Building, submit to several drug tests and perform dozens of hours of community service, but their cases remained ongoing.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office responded to the activists’ allegations Wednesday, claiming the cases “were handled consistently.”

“The case involving Mayor Gray and others had a different set of circumstances and was not handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” noted the U.S. Attorney’s Public Information Officer Bill Miller. “The District of Columbia Office of Attorney General handled that matter.”

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office requires defendants to pass drug tests to qualify for diversion,” Miller added.

But, as he stood in front of fellow activists holding signs stating “U.S. Attorney: Fair treatment for HIV+,” Drug Policy Alliance executive Daniel Brito called the continuing prosecution of the protesters “egregious and cruel.”

“This is a particularly bad abuse of power and the charges should be dropped in this case,” Brito added.

Charles King, president of advocacy group Housing Works, vowed that those speaking out against the U.S. attorney Wednesday would not be standing alone.

“This July, the international AIDS conference is going to be held right here in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I want to promise the U.S. attorney that this aggressive prosecution, this persecution of AIDS activists, is not going to deter us.

“We are planning to bring thousands of people from all over the country. We are planning to engage in civil disobedience because we want to see this epidemic come to an end here in the United States and around the globe,” King added. “And we know that civil disobedience is a powerful way to make that happen.”

Updated at 1:23 p.m., February 9.