Pop Star Is No Angel, But Neither Are Prosecutors

German pop star Nadja Benaissa (seen here with her lawyer, Oliver Wallasch) is currently on trial in Darmstadt, charged with one count of aggravated battery and three of attempted battery.

HIV Hysteria

The trial of German pop star Nadja Benaissa, who is accused of infecting a sexual partner with HIV, is the culmination of a witch hunt against the singer. The case revolves around the question of who is responsible for safe sex and whether Benaissa, who was only 16 when she learned her HIV status, was a victim of the pressure of the music industry. 

Perhaps the case could have been settled with a simple penalty order, which would have avoided a trial. But that would only have been possible if five men — a circuit judge, a chief prosecutor, an official solicitor and two detective superintendents — had not met on April 2 of last year at the district attorney’s office in the western German city of Darmstadt and decided to give the case such a high profile. Or if they had later found their way back to a more levelheaded approach. But once it had been set in motion, the stigmatizing witch hunt had to run its course. 

During that fateful meeting in Darmstadt, the five men agreed on how they would proceed in the case of the German pop singer Nadja Benaissa, who is a member of the band No Angels, Germany’s biggest girl group. In June 2008, a former boyfriend had accused Benaissa, who is HIV-positive, of infecting him with the virus by having unprotected sex with him four years earlier. On the evening of April 12 of last year, the defendant was to be arrested during a performance at the Frankfurt music venue “Nachtleben” and immediately brought before an investigating judge. For someone who had hoped to provoke a spectacular case, the charges against the celebrity pop star came at an opportune time. 

On April 9, 2009, the chief prosecutor and the circuit judge discussed the planned arrest once again. Realizing that the singer’s place of residence was “unclear” and that her performance in Frankfurt would be the only opportunity to apprehend her, they made a slight change to their plan. Instead of having Benaissa arrested after the concert, they decided it would be preferable to make their move before the performance. Fearing an angry reaction from her loyal fans, they also decided to avoid having her taken away through the crowd. 

Instead, Benaissa was arrested near the entrance to the club, where fans were waiting in line for tickets — a move clearly intended to stir up publicity. The investigating judge immediately ordered that Benaissa be remanded in custody. Apparently no one felt it was necessary to consider whether it was appropriate to take Benaissa into custody on the strength of a suspicion that allegedly stemmed from an incident that had happened five years earlier. 

‘Risk of Re-Offending’ 

The Darmstadt district attorney’s office launched its second offensive on the first business day after Easter. Although it didn’t provide the name of the singer in a press release it issued that day (her identity was already widely known after the Frankfurt arrest), it did state she was HIV-positive and that she was suspected of having “had unprotected sexual intercourse with three individuals in 2004 and 2006,” and that she had allegedly failed to inform her partners about her infection. “With at least one of the partners, a test showed that he — presumably as a result of the contact — is now also HIV-positive,” said district attorney Ger Neuber. 

The investigators claim that the police had tried to approach the singer for months. “After that, we initiated further investigations when it became known, in the late phase of the undertaking, that two other men had also allegedly had unprotected sex with her,” said Neuber. “This meant that there was a strong suspicion that she had committed a crime and that there was a risk of re-offending.” 

The tabloid newspaper Bild asked the logical question: “How many men has No Angels star Nadja infected?” And then it reassured its readers by writing: “Now Nadja is in pre-trial detention on suspicion of aggravated battery, to protect other men against infection!” 

The disclosure of the most intimate details of the singer’s sex life and, most of all, the questionable use of the “risk of re-offending” to justify her arrest — whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? — sparked a heated debate in the ensuing months among members of the legal system, the media and politicians. Suddenly the courts were barring reporting on a case that prosecutors had already deliberately thrust into the limelight. Whether the Benaissa case was truly about aggravated battery and the question of who had infected whom, which was completely unresolved at the time — all of this was drowned out by the dispute over the limits of judicial public relations and the “pressing public need” to know “when someone uses her body as a biological weapon,” in the words of Siegmund Ehrmann, a member of the German parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party. 

Benaissa ‘Trusted’ Doctors 

Now Benaissa is being tried in a juvenile court in Darmstadt, charged with one count of aggravated battery and three of attempted battery. On the first day of the trial, her lawyer, Oliver Wallasch, who appeared to be treating her gently as he accompanied her to the court, submitted a statement for his client in which he stated that the charges were “probably correct.” Wallasch also stated that it was true that the defendant had known that she was HIV-positive since 1999, the year her daughter was born. 

But doctors had apparently assured her that the risk of acquiring AIDS was close to zero, provided she remained sufficiently disciplined and remained under constant medical supervision. According to the statement, the doctors had told Benaissa that this also applied to the risk of infection “if the viral load was undetectable.” 

“I trusted those doctors,” Benaissa insisted. But, she added, she “wrongly and, in retrospect, more than negligently” pushed the residual risk to the back of her mind and told herself that she would never become sick. 

Then she addressed a sensitive issue. “I also thought that my respective partners also bore some of the responsibility to talk about and contribute to preventing infection by using condoms. In this respect, I neglected my own responsibility. Today I have to admit that this was a big mistake on my part.” 

Who Was Responsible for the Unsafe Sex? 

Aggravated battery is an intentional crime. This means that the Darmstadt juvenile court and its presiding judge, Dennis Wacker, will have to prove that the defendant knew about the risk of infecting her sex partners and accepted the possibility of infection. 

Speaking through her attorney, Benaissa argued that she had never intended to infect someone else with the virus, and that she had always insisted that her partners use condoms. But “in some cases the partners dealt with the issue in a completely careless way.” The question is: Should she have been equally casual about accepting their behavior? 

Men tend to leave contraception up to women, be it prevention of an unwanted pregnancy or avoiding infection. Their sex partners often seek to excuse their behavior with the argument that they were young and were drunk on the evening or night in question, and that “it just happened.” 

Empty Promises 

In light of what Benaissa says about the music industry and its countless advisers and so-called artist agents, who take advantage of young girls by promising them a big career, she apparently now knows that she listened to too many of the wrong advisers. 

She had recently given birth to her child, at the age of 16, and had hardly recovered from her drug addiction and a miserable life on the street when she found out that she was HIV-positive. And before she could even understand what this meant, she was already a star in the limelight, sexy, glitzy and euphoric, surrounded by hysterical fans. “A week later, I didn’t know what I wanted anymore,” she told the court. 

Is she trying to protect herself when she says that she ignored the risks? She was little more than a child when she received the shocking diagnosis. Is it something a 16-year-old girl is even equipped to handle? 

Afraid to Speak Out 

Naturally she didn’t want anyone to find out about the infection, and naturally she felt ashamed. There was a lot at stake: the band’s career and the money it stood to earn. Naturally, she was under pressure from the advisers and agents, who stood to make money with her and the other girls. And of course she was afraid and sought to numb her fears with success, allowed others to control her and dictate her role to her, all in an effort to escape the truth. But should she have kept her silence when she was about to have sex with someone who didn’t want to use a condom? Shouldn’t she have disclosed her status? 

She described how the rumor that “Nadja is positive” was spread on the social networking website Facebook when the band made its comeback, and how others looked askance at her and whispered behind her back. It was revealed during the trial that a newspaper had tried to force her to come clean, and that there had been blackmail threats. “I was being terrorized from all sides,” Benaissa said. “It was simply too much for me, having to do everything right in that situation.” All of this may be true. But it’s also true that, in the public’s perception, HIV infection is still equated with AIDS, while the person who is infected can feel perfectly healthy. 

The man she allegedly infected is six years older than Benaissa. He has known since 2007 that he is infected with the possibly deadly virus. His life has become unhinged as a result. 

During the trial, he spoke disparagingly of “her over there,” or referred to her sarcastically as “that nice lady” who has “brought so much suffering into the world.” His voice was full of loathing and thinly veiled hate. He said things that no man should say about a woman. He tried to maintain his composure. When he was asked when he found that he too was HIV-positive, it doesn’t take him long to answer, as if the date and place had been burned into his mind: “Paris, Feb. 7, 2007.” 

Testimony from Former Boyfriends 

On Wednesday, an expert from the University of Munich will explain to the court whether it is in fact possible to trace the man’s infection to the defendant. There have been significant advances in the study of HIV recently. Perhaps it will soon be possible to keep an HIV infection under such control with drugs that the risk of infection is virtually eliminated. But science hadn’t reached that stage yet when Benaissa was having unprotected sex. 

One of the first witnesses to testify was a 38-year-old musician who was friends with the defendant between 2003 and 2004. She trusted him and told him that she was HIV-positive. “My impression was that she handled the infection very responsibly,” he said. He added that they spoke about it openly, and that when the friendship turned into a relationship, there was no question that they used condoms. Another 37-year-old man who had had an on-off relationship with Benaissa between 1999 and 2001 told the court on Monday that Benaissa had informed him about her HIV status on the evening they first met and had always insisted on using condoms. In other words, responsible sex was apparently also an option for Benaissa. 

The verdict in the case is expected on Thursday. In recent days, some voices in the media have predicted that Benaissa will probably end up with a 10-year prison sentence. But this seems unlikely, given the way the trial has been going. The prosecution, the defense, the lawyers for the joint plaintiff and the court are clearly making an effort to bring the overinflated case back down to earth. 

If she is sentenced to probation, no one need worry that this young woman will ever use her body as a “biological weapon” again. 

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,713368,00.html