An unlicensed doctor was sentenced to 25 years in prison yesterday after being found guilty by Battambang Provincial Court of “torture with aggravating circumstances” for infecting hundreds of people with HIV.
Yem Chroeum, 56, stared at the ground as presiding judge Yich Chheanavy read out the verdict, while his wife and children sitting at the front of the courtroom wept.
Chheanavy said Chroeum, who had been working as a doctor in the province’s Roka village for almost two decades, had “committed a criminal offence … that has made some victims die, and seriously affected the mental and physical health and reputation” of others.
After being arrested almost a year ago, Chroeum was charged with murder for spreading the virus through tainted injections. But the conviction was “adjusted” yesterday to “torture with aggravating circumstances”.
“[We] sentence him to 25 years in prison and order him to pay 5 million riel [about $1,250] to the state for running the clinic without permission,” Chheanavy said.
He was also ordered to pay compensation to 107 of his victims of between 2 million and and 12 million riel.
Defence lawyer Em Savan said he was satisfied with the verdict.
“It is my success of defending him. I fought to change the conviction from Article 205 to Article 215 of the Criminal Code,” he said. “My client is a good doctor . . . He did not murder or torture anyone but cured them.”
As Chroeum was escorted out of the courtroom yesterday morning, his family followed, watching in tears as he was taken in a police car back to the provincial prison.
“We cannot accept it. Twenty-five years in prison; my brother will not survive and his children will not survive because he is in jail and no one will be able take care of them,” screamed his sister-in-law Lay Savorn.
“I will go to Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to help us. This is not justice”.
The outbreak of the virus was first detected last December. Since then, 282 people have been diagnosed as HIV-positive and the list is still growing.
Officials at Roka Health Centre said a 22-year-old woman was diagnosed with the virus on Wednesday.
In the village, reactions to yesterday’s verdict varied.
Everyone the Post spoke to agreed that before news of the scandal broke, Chroeum had been looked on as a popular member of the community – a kindly man who genuinely wanted to help.
Some of his former patients and neighbours have maintained that view, arguing that yesterday’s sentence was too harsh. But others said they now believed the doctor had acted intentionally and should have been imprisoned for life.
“I used to think he was a good person; now I think it was his intention to transmit the disease. Twenty-five years for that is very light,” said one woman whose 9-year-old son was diagnosed as HIV-positive last December.
The woman, who requested anonymity because of stigmas surrounding the virus, said the sentence did little to make up for the damage that had been done to her son.
After he was diagnosed, “classmates didn’t want to play with him. He would say ‘mummy, my friends won’t play with me’. I’m worried about his future – he will have to take medicine for his whole life,” she said through tears.
Elsewhere in the village, 70-year-old patient Kim Lab, whose husband died earlier this year after being diagnosed HIV-positive, said she still believed that Chroeum was a “good person”, and that he should have been let off more lightly.
Lab added that she was not among those due to receive compensation from the doctor. “No one told me that I could,” she said.
Lab, who has found life a struggle since contracting the virus, said she would appreciate financial compensation but doubted Chroeum’s family could afford it.
“The doctor has nothing to pay. He is also poor,” she said.
Others in the community said they were also not aware that it was possible to request compensation, or said their complaints had failed to reach the court.
Meanwhile, all said their lives were becoming increasingly difficult as support for the community – in the shape of food and monetary donations that poured in after the virus was first detected – had now all but dried up.
“That all stopped many months ago,” said Mao Samphoeut whose 8-year-old daughter is infected with the virus.
As the devastating effects of the outbreak continue to be felt in Roka, elsewhere in the country, unlicensed clinics remain open.
According to government data, as of August, almost 4,000 unlicensed clinics continued to operate across the country.
Following yesterday’s verdict, Leng Monyneath, medical manager for a local rights group, said that even within Roka, Chroeum was likely not the only one to blame.
“I believe that the villagers were not treated only by him. They could get treatment from other private clinics or state hospitals. But in the end, only he has been brought to justice,” he said.
“I hope the court and relevant authorities would consider and look into other people, too.”