Cambodian Medic Who Spread HIV Asks for Court’s Mercy

Yem Chrin, center, an unlicensed medical practitioner, is escorted by prison guards to waiting transportation outside an appeals court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday. Photo: Heng Sinith

PHNOM PENH — An unlicensed Cambodian medical practitioner who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for infecting more than 100 villagers with HIV on Thursday acknowledged his mistake in reusing syringes and told an appeals court that he only sought to provide health care for his community.

A court in the northwestern province of Battambang in December 2015 found Yem Chrin guilty of cruel behavior resulting in death, intentionally spreading HIV and practicing medicine without a license. He is seeking a reduction of his sentence to 10 years so he can be reunited with his family, he said.

At least 10 of the infected persons died, and he had initially faced a murder charge that would have made him liable for life imprisonment.

The appeals court in Phnom Penh said Thursday it will announce its verdict Sept. 8.
Yem Chrin, 57, told the appeals court that he reused disposable syringes and needles because it was difficult to get new ones and he didn’t know they could spread the HIV infection, which causes AIDS. He said that even his own mother, sister, nephew and nieces became infected with HIV as a result of his treatments.

He said that for nearly 20 years he had been treating patients for all kinds of illnesses. In some cases they were unable to pay because they were too poor, which he accepted. In earlier testimony, some villagers praised his generous spirit.

Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, has inadequate health care facilities, especially in rural areas, where villagers often have no recourse but to rely on unlicensed medical practitioners who have trained themselves to treat minor ailments and give injections.

Yem Chrin said he often had a short supply of syringes, and it was difficult to travel to the nearest provincial town to buy new ones.

“If I had known that the needle and syringes meant for one-time use could contain HIV, then I would not have reused them with another patient,” he said, telling the court that the tragedy caused him sleeplessness.

When he was arrested in 2014, police took him into protective custody because they feared he might be lynched by residents of Roka village, where at least 106 of 800 people tested were found to be infected with HIV. Local newspapers reported the total was 300. The infected patients ranged in age from 3 to 82 and included Buddhist monks.

“Intentional or unintentional, I don’t know, but the HIV I got from his treatment can’t be tolerated because this virus puts my life in peril,” said Sam Lorm, 83. “I thought sentencing him to 25-years’ imprisonment was too lenient, because the crimes he committed affected not one victims but more than 300 people in a single village.”

A 30-year-old HIV-positive woman said she received treatment twice from Yem Chrin, when she was pregnant with morning sickness and when she had contracted typhoid.Now she and her 3-year-old daughter both were infected with HIV, she said.

Cambodia had a high HIV prevalence rate of 2 percent in 1998, but an aggressive campaign to promote safe sex brought the figure down to an estimated 0.7 per cent in 2014, according to the U.N. agency that spearheads the worldwide fight against AIDS.

Story: Sopheng Cheang