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UN's AIDS agency reopens sex harassment case amid criticism

In this file photo dated June 30, 2015, Deputy Executive Director, UNAIDS, Dr. Luiz Loures, applauds during a meeting at the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

GENEVA (AP) -- The United Nations agency that fights AIDS has reopened a sexual harassment investigation of a top official who was cleared in an initial probe, saying Monday that additional allegations have emerged.

    UNAIDS declined to specify the new allegations against Luiz Loures, the agency's outgoing deputy executive director for programs. Loures was the subject of a sexual harassment and assault complaint filed in November 2016 from a lower-level employee, Martina Brostrom.

    Brostrom alleged he forcibly kissed and grabbed her in a Bangkok hotel elevator in May 2015, claims that Loures has denied. The World Health Organization office that investigated concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the sexual harassment accusation and no evidence of sexual assault.

    The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault. However, Brostrom spoke to the news media this year after a WHO panel accepted the investigators' recommendation to close the case.

    In an email Monday, Brostrom said she wasn't optimistic a third review would yield a different outcome.

    "Given past irregularities in the prior U.N. investigations, I have no confidence that yet another U.N. internal investigation will produce an objective and independent outcome," she said.

    Critics, including Brostrom, said the review process by WHO's Internal Oversight Services office was badly flawed.

    According to a UNAIDS statement emailed Monday to The Associated Press, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus has asked the U.N.'s internal oversight office to conduct the new investigation.

    UNAIDS declined to provide specifics about the new allegations against Loures. Agency spokesman Roman Levchenko said information needed to be withheld "to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the process." WHO also declined further comment.

    U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations welcomed the move to reopen the investigation "and to suspend the decisions to close the case until the outcome of the broader investigation."

    The General Assembly has mandated the U.N.'s own Office of Internal Oversight Services "to have operational independence to conduct the investigation," while WHO's Ghebreyesus "has agreed to serve as the decision-maker in this case," Dujarric said.

    The original case centered on alleged sexual harassment and assault, and UNAIDS did not refer to sexual assault in its statement about the new investigation.

    Monday was Loures' last day at UNAIDS, Levchenko said.

    In February, UNAIDS spokesman Mahesh Mahalingam told reporters in Geneva that Loures would leave his post by March 31.

    Mahalingam said at the time that Loures' departure had nothing to do with Brostrom's allegations, but said the deputy executive-director felt "this is time for him to move on" after 22 years of "long and distinguished" service at UNAIDS. Mahalingam also praised Loures as a pioneer in making AIDS drugs available in developing countries.

    UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe said in Monday's statement that the agency "has zero tolerance for sexual harassment" and will "cooperate fully with all aspects of the new investigation."

    Earlier this year, UNAIDS told The Associated Press it had received only one sexual harassment complaint between 2013 and 2017, and that the allegations were not substantiated. The agency counts about 700 staffers between its Geneva headquarters and field offices.

    Critics of the decision from the original investigation want an independent probe conducted outside the United Nations.

    AIDS-Free World's Code Blue campaign, which works to fight sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel, lashed out Friday at the "UN's shockingly biased and corrupted internal investigation."

    Code Blue alleged the earlier investigation "overlooked the improper intrusion" of Sidibe and accused him of launching a "costly damage control campaign to protect his status and position."

    Paula Donovan, co-director of the Code Blue Campaign, urged U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday to invite U.N. member states to create "an independent oversight panel of experts" to monitor U.N. investigations and decision-making.

    "It would be unrestricted by the immunity that protects all the U.N. organization's documents and 'words and deeds' from true, impartial investigation and scrutiny," Donovan said. "Either you are serious about transparency or you are not. So far, the U.N. is not."

    Sidibe said he has recused himself from the case and that no UNAIDS officials will be involved from now on.

    UNAIDS, which is officially named the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, brings together 11 U.N. organizations to help reduce HIV infections and end AIDS-related deaths.

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