An unlicensed doctor allegedly at the centre of a medical scandal that has seen almost 300 residents of Battambang province’s Roka village infected with HIV proclaimed his innocence during the first day of his highly anticipated trial yesterday.
As Yem Chroeum arrived at Battambang Provincial Court yesterday morning, members of his family wept, standing alongside Chroeum’s alleged victims and security forces, which were deployed to keep order outside of the courtroom.
Chroeum was arrested in December as news of the HIV outbreak emerged in the small rural community. The local doctor, who is accused of spreading the virus by reusing tainted needles, was charged with murder just days later.
After the judge read the charges to the court yesterday – intentionally transmitting HIV, running an unlicensed clinic and “murder preceded or followed by torture, a cruel act or rape” – Chroeum insisted he was innocent.
“I want the court to seek justice for me by conducting a thorough investigation into this case,” he said. “I have no ill will with them [those infected]. healed them, and for some poor families I treated them and allowed them to pay me when they had the money.”
Chroeum, who remained in handcuffs as he took the stand, said he had worked in the village since 1995, having been trained by a foreign doctor at a Thai refugee camp.
“I am good at healing malaria and intestinal diseases,” he said, adding that over the years he had treated the community for a multitude of ailments, referring them to the provincial hospital if their condition was critical.
He admitted that when he first moved to Roka he had “less syringes so the used syringes were sterilised with boiling water so that they could be used again”.
At that time, he said, “I used to treat a 10-member family which contracted HIV, but they all died except a child.”
In recent years, Chroeum said he has used needles only once, and has never reused a syringe on different patients.
But prosecutor Heng Luy accused the doctor of lying.
“He said . . . he has never used the syringe twice, but the evidence found in his bag was both old and new syringes. He is hiding the truth,” he said.
Presiding judge Yech Chea Navy urged Chrouem to “tell the truth so the court can seek justice for you, because at the moment you are just charged; you are not guilty yet”.
Ahead of yesterday’s case, HIV-positive residents sat in front of the courtroom, demanding compensation and mourning the fate of their once-quiet village, where several elderly patients have died this year.
One of the plaintiffs, pagoda chief Sam Lorm, 81, said that he loved Chroeum as if he was one of his own children and was convinced the doctor hadn’t intended to cause the outbreak.
But, he said, “I just want him to pay me 5 million riel [about $1,233], and for people to let the court punish him based on the law.”
Leum Lorm, 52, was more critical of the doctor who he said had condemned villagers to a life without hope.
“I asked the court to order him to pay me 10 million riel and punish him based on the law, because the whole village contracted HIV because of him,” he said.
Chroeum’s family, though, insisted that he had only wanted to help the village.
“My husband is a very polite and generous man. All my children dropped out of school because he is detained in the prison,” said his wife, Khuon Chenda, 45.
“I was a junior at Build Bright University in the province, but after my father was detained I decided to stop studying because my family could not afford the tuition fee. I beg the court to seek justice for my father; it is very unfair for him,” said one of his daughters.
His sister-in-law, one of 290 HIV positive villagers, said Chroeum had tried “to save my life, not to kill me”.
The trial continues today.