An unlicensed health worker charged in Cambodia with causing a mass HIV infection by treating patients with reused needles said on Tuesday that he had always sterilized needles before using them and has no idea how the infection was spread.
“I had no intention of infecting my patients. I don’t know the reason for the infections,” Yem Chhrem told a panel of judges on the opening day of his five-day trial in northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang provincial court.
“I ask for justice from the court,” he said.
Yem Chhrem, whose actions may have caused the infection of more than 270 residents of Roka commune in Battambang, was questioned for more than eight hours on Tuesday on his medical credentials and experience in treating patients.
Security at the trial was tight, and reporters were blocked from bringing notebooks and cameras into the courtroom, sources said, adding that Yem Chhrem appeared frightened during the proceedings and only gave brief answers to the questions put to him by the court.
Speaking at his trial, Yem Chhrem said that in 1996 he had sometimes used the same needles to give injections, but had disinfected the needles by boiling them before using them again.
And when less expensive needles became available, he used fresh needles for each patient, he said.
Used needles were routinely destroyed every three days to reduce the risks of infection, he added.
Plea for mercy
Speaking to reporters after the day’s proceedings, Yem Chhrem’s wife Yorm Chenda asked for mercy from the court, urging judges at the trial not to impose a long sentence.
“This would be a terrible injustice,” she said. “[My husband] is a gentleman. He had no intention to cause any infections."
More than 270 villagers in Roka have tested positive for HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—since late November 2014, and at least 10 Roka villagers are now believed to have died from the disease.
In one extended family of 50 people, 16 were infected.
Yem Chhrem, an unlicensed medical practitioner who had worked in Roka for around 20 years, was detained in December in connection with the cases and admitted reusing needles on different patients .
The Battambang provincial court then pressed formal charges against him, including intentionally spreading HIV, murder carried out with a cruel act, and practicing medicine without a license.
Yem Chhrem faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted on the murder charge alone.
Reported by Hum Chamroeun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.