The trial of an unlicensed medic charged with murder for allegedly infecting more than 270 villagers with HIV began Tuesday at the Battambang Provincial Court.
In the courtroom Tuesday morning, Yem Chrin denied responsibility for the mass outbreak that struck Sangke district’s Roka commune in December last year, saying that he had not reused syringes as accused by prosecutors. Ten HIV-infected villagers have since died in the commune.
If convicted of aggravated murder under Article 205 of the criminal code, Mr. Chrin could face life in prison. The 56-year-old medic also stands charged with operating without a medical license and intentionally transmitting HIV.
Under questioning from Presiding Judge Yich Chheanavy, who banned reporters from bringing notebooks and pens into the courtroom, and deputy prosecutor Heng Luy, Mr. Chrin said he did not know why so many people had become infected with the virus.
While the medic admitted to reusing both syringes and needles upon returning to Roka from a refugee camp along the Thai border in 1993, he said he put a stop to the practice by 1997 or 1998 after medical equipment became more readily available.
In response, Mr. Luy told the defendant that his claims were “not reasonable,” citing answers given to police by Mr. Chrin during questioning in December.
At the time, deputy provincial penal police chief Seng Luch said that Mr. Chrin had admitted to carelessness in administering injections.
“He said he changed the needles, but sometimes he did not change the syringes,” he said in December.
Mr. Luy also introduced Mr. Chrin’s doctor’s bag as evidence, telling the court that investigators had found used and unused syringes mixed together in one of its pockets.
Asked if he kept new and used syringes together, the medic remained silent.
Approached later at the courthouse, Mr. Luy declined to comment on the case, saying only that the trial would continue for another four days.
In addition to Mr. Chrin, eight HIV-infected villagers also gave testimony at the court Tuesday, with most claiming they had come to trust the defendant for his medical knowledge.
More than 100 infected villagers have filed complaints against Mr. Chrin with the court.
Chum Phorn, 73, told the court that both she and her husband, who testified later in the day, tested positive for the virus following visits from Mr. Chrin, who she claimed was the only doctor to have ever treated her.
Ms. Phorn said that while she was convinced that Mr. Chrin had infected her, she did not know how he might have done so, and had never felt the need to monitor his techniques. She said that while her husband was demanding monetary compensation from Mr. Chrin, she only requested that the defendant provide enough money for her to eat until she died.
Loeum Lorm, 52—the first man in Roka to test positive for HIV in December—told the court that Mr. Chrin treated him for two years before the outbreak.
Unlike Ms. Phorn, Mr. Lorm claimed that he witnessed Mr. Chrin’s carelessness.
Contacted later Tuesday, Mr. Lorm said he saw Mr. Chrin reuse syringes when he treated him for stomach pains.
“I suspect Yem Chrin infected the people with the HIV virus because when he used the syringe to inject me, the plastic packaging was open already,” he said, adding that since contracting HIV, he had been forced to sell 10 cows to pay for treatment.
“My wife, daughter, son-in-law, father-in-law, two nieces and I are infected with HIV,” he said. “All of us were treated by Yem Chrin.”
In an interview outside the courthouse Tuesday after her husband was taken back to the provincial prison in a van, Youm Chenda, 45, said she was sure of her spouse’s innocence.
“He did not infect the people with HIV,” Ms. Chenda said, adding that she and her four daughters were now living with her niece in Battambang City for fear of retribution by residents of Roka.
Surrounded by family members, some of them in tears, she claimed residents who accuse her husband of wrongdoing were motivated by the prospect of compensation.
“Many villagers do not have real jobs in Roka—they just followed each other, one by one, accusing my husband,” Ms. Chenda said.
“He never had disputes with any people in the village. He treated the villagers for a long time. Most people loved him before this happened.”