Protests break out at start of AIDS conference

 

Thai prime minister Mr Thaksin Shinawatra drew catcalls and whistling from drug activists today as he countered accusations of intolerance towards injecting drug users, who carry a high risk of HIV and AIDS.

Protesters unfurled a large black banner saying "Thaksin Lies" as he announced an end to his government's hard line policy on drugs as part of his speech at the opening of the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok.

"In the past, drug use was treated like a crime which warranted severe punishment," Mr Thaksin said. "At present, our mindsets have changed and we now see drug users as patients who require our support and treatment."

Around 20 protesters held up posters in the auditorium saying: "No more lies", and "Methadone now", a reference to a heroin subsitute which remains illegal in Thailand.

"Thai government drug policy = drop dead," said another.

More than 2,000 people died last year in a Thaksin-led "war on drugs". Human rights groups said many of the deaths were extra-judicial killings but the Thai government insists most were drug dealers shooting other drug dealers.

Before he spoke, 1,000 activists and protesters urged conference organisers to focus on providing cheaper treatment to more people. Demonstrators staged a sit-down protest outside the conference centre on the outskirts of Bangkok.

"The pharmaceutical companies have created a massive business out of people's lives," said Honduran activist Mr Carlos Martel. "They must give better access to treatment."

Conference organisers Mr Craig McClure and Mr Joep Lange of the International Aids Society met protest leaders who petitioned them to get the world's rich countries to make good on their promises of funding for AIDS treatment and projects.