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082806hiv28 Aug 2006- Durban-  A South African judge Monday ordered the government to start providing anti-AIDS medication immediately to sick prisoners at a Durban prison, throwing out an appeal by the health and prison ministries against an earlier ruling.

Judge Chris Nicholson said the government was in contempt of court for ignoring the previous order.

"If the Government of the Republic of South Africa has given such an instruction not to comply with the execution order, 3/8 then we face a grave constitutional crisis involving a serious threat to the doctrine

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which brought the application along with 15 prisoners - one of whom has since died - welcomed his ruling.

"It's one of the most critical judgments we've had," TAC general secretary Sipho Mthathi told the South African Press Association.

Mark Heywood, spokesman for the Aids Law Project, said the ruling marked a good day for prisoners, and a bad day for the government.

"This judgment has to be one of the most damning judgments of government conduct since the advent of our new constitutional order in 1994," he said.

The Department of Correctional Services said it would be able to respond only after "studying the court decision properly." It has previously argued that it is doing its best to provide anti-retroviral medicine to prisoners.

There are no reliable figures on the number of prisoners with HIV. But among the adult population in general, an estimated 19 percent of people aged 15 to 49, and 30 percent of pregnant women, are infected. An estimated 5.5 million people carry the virus - the highest total in the world.

The Treatment Action Campaign held a day of action last Thursday in support of infected prisoners and all the other South Africans who are not receiving treatment.

The Aids Law Project made an urgent court application in May to compel the department to speed up ARV treatment in Durban's Westville prison.

A judge granted the order in June, and said treatment should be provided to all inmates at the prison who required treatment. The Department of Correctional Services appealed that ruling.

Nicholson said there was "precious little that can be done" to hold the State accountable for being in contempt of court, according to SAPA. But he gave the department until September 8 to show that it was complying with the court order.