BATTAMBANG CITY – Yem Chrin, the unlicensed village medic who has been blamed for spreading HIV to more than 280 residents of rural Roka commune in Battambang province, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on Thursday morning.
At the Battambang Provincial Court, Presiding Judge Yich Chheanavy announced that Mr. Chrin, 56, had been found guilty of operating without a medical license, intentionally spreading HIV and torture and acts of cruelty that result in death with aggravating circumstances.
Mr. Chrin was spared a potential life sentence after the court downgraded an initial charge of murder accompanied by torture, cruelty or rape.
“The court thinks that he’s guilty enough with criminal acts: operating an unlicensed clinic, spreading AIDs to victims and torture to cause the death of victims,” Judge Chheanavy told about 30 people—mostly family members of the medic—gathered in the courtroom.
“[The court] decides about the charges: firstly, to change the charge of murder with torture and cruelty, written in Article 205, that cause the death of victim, to Article 215,” torture that results in death, she said. “Secondly, [the court] decides to sentence Yem Chrin to 25 years in prison and orders him to pay 5 million riel [about $1,250] in fines.”
As Judge Chheanavy read the verdict aloud, Mr. Chrin’s family burst into tears.
Mr. Chrin was also ordered to pay compensation to 107 victims, ranging from 50,000 riel (about $12.50) to 12 million riel (about $3,000), and banned from ever practicing medicine in the future.
Exiting the courtroom following the verdict, Mr. Chrin said little, only telling reporters that he was an innocent man.
“It is very unjust because I did not commit [the crime],” he said while being escorted away by provincial prison guards.
Speaking outside the courtroom, Mr. Chrin’s wife, Youm Chenda, 45, struggled to keep her composure.
“The court’s decision is very unjust because my husband is a good person and he always helped to treat those villagers,” Ms. Chenda said.
“I request to [Prime Minister] Samdech Hun Sen to intervene in this case to free my husband,” she added. “I cannot talk anymore because I feel like I will have a heart attack.”
Yelling to the few remaining people gathered in the court compound after Mr. Chrin was driven away to the provincial prison, the medic’s sister-in-law, Lay Savorn, 60, lamented the court’s decision.
“My brother will die if he is imprisoned for 25 years,” she said.
During the five-day trial in October, the prosecution argued that Mr. Chrin caused the epidemic by failing to replace his medical equipment between intravenous treatments, using infected syringes on multiple patients—a claim Mr. Chrin admitted to during questioning by police, but denied in court.
Nearly 80-HIV infected villagers gave testimony during the trial, with most telling the court that the only doctor to have ever treated them was Mr. Chrin.
James McCabe, director of operations for the Child Protection Unit, a policing unit supported by the Cambodian Children’s Fund that assisted the initial investigation in Roka, said that Mr. Chrin’s failure to properly register and obtain sufficient medical training could be seen as intent.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that he thought he was doing the best thing he could,” Mr. McCabe said. “When the judges considered the charges, I would say they looked at what’s occurred and what could have been prevented, and by him failing to take those actions then that formed intent.”
By Beng Sor, chief of the Roka commune health center, said that a total of 283 villagers had been infected with HIV—11 of whom had since died from complications related to the virus.
“I think that 25 years in jail is appropriate because now he is older,” said Mr. Beng Sor, who has been on the front line of the response to the outbreak since it was first reported a year ago.
Other Roka residents, though, expressed disappointment with the court’s decision to drop the murder charge against Mr. Chrin.
Han Srey, an HIV-infected villager who was awarded compensation of 12 million riel (about $3,000) by the court, said that the ruling was far too lenient for someone who infected his children with a lifelong illness.
“I think that the court sentence for Mr. Yem Chrin is very short because my family has three people—my 18-year-old son, my 8-year-old daughter and myself—who were infected by him,” Mr. Srey said.
“I wanted the court to sentence Mr. Yem Chrin to life because my children and I will have to take medicine for life too.”
Chak Chenda, whose infant son died from HIV-related complications, agreed that the sentence was far too light.
“I wanted the court to give him a life sentence because I have the HIV virus and my 4-month-old who was infected has died,” Ms. Chenda said, adding that more than 10 of her relatives also had the virus.
“What can I use the 3 million riel (about $750) compensation for?” the 32-year-old said. “I don’t want to take it—I want the court to sentence him for life.”
However, Roeum Sreya, a 25-year-old infected villager, said the court’s decision to downgrade the charges against Mr. Chrin would likely have little impact on his ultimate fate.
“I think that 25 years in jail for Mr. Yem Chrin seems like a life sentence because he is over 50 years old already,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Jensen)