DELEGATES have observed a minute of silence to remember those lost on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 at the opening of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF) pre-conference to the International AIDS Conference starting tomorrow.

Many in attendance were still visibly shaken by the news yesterday that a number of delegates and attendees of both AIDS 2014 and the MSMGF pre-conference were killed when MH17 was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday.

Delegates whose friends and colleagues were killed called the atmosphere at the pre-conference “unreal”, with many offering support and condolences for the loss of those who would have been at the event.

Among those killed were staff of major MSMGF funder AIDS Fonds, including the manager of global HIV program Bridging the Gaps, Martine de Schutter, who was due to present at the pre-conference on this morning. Former International AIDS Society president Joep Lange was also killed.

MSMGF founding co-chair and Order of Australia member Don Baxter said the conference would not open in the usual spirit of energy and joy.

“The death of so many of the chiefly Dutch AIDS scientists and activists has made a very big hole in the talent and integrity and energy of the global AIDS response, which we’ll all feel through this conference and beyond,” he said.

UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe also expressed deep sadness at the loss of his colleagues on MH17.

He said the MSMGF pre-conference was an important reminder of the barriers to ending HIV and AIDS posed by discrimination, criminalisation and violence against LGBTI people around the world.

“The rights of LGBTI people are in the worldwide spotlight as never before, but new homophobic laws are being drafted and enacted around the world. 81 countries are still criminalising same-sex practises. In seven countries it is punishable by death,” Sidibe said, before he ended with a rallying cry for the pre-conference.

“Let us say this was the day that we said no more to exclusion, bigotry and AIDS. It is the greatest gift we can give to future generations.”

International AIDS Society president-elect Chris Beyrer said progress on LGBTI rights in many parts of the world was moving backwards, having a profound impact on an effective response to the epidemic.

“What we’re seeing rather, is a rise in harsh anti-gay laws and policies, rising homophobic violence, and decreasing access to essential services, from HIV testing and safety and dignity to clinical care and treatment, and even to the most basic issues of community organising,” he said.

Beyrer is the first openly-gay president of the International AIDS Society.

AIDS Fonds has issued a brief statement on the loss of their colleagues Martine de Schutter and lobbyist Pim de Kuijer, expressing “great sadness and deep devastation”.

“Our thoughts and compassion go out to their families and friends. We wish them strength in these difficult times. Our colleagues were inspiring and beautiful people, who we will forever embrace in our hearts,” the statement read.

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