An unlicensed medical practitioner who infected more than 100 villagers in northwestern Cambodia with HIV by reusing unclean needles has gone on trial, his lawyer said.  

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Yem Chhrin faces life in prison if found guilty of murder, and intentionally spreading HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, his lawyer, Em Sovann, said on Tuesday.

Chhrin also faces charges of practicing medicine without a license. 

He was arrested last December and taken into protective custody, due to the risk of revenge lynching by residents of Roka village, where at least 106 of the 800 people tested were found to be infected with HIV. Those infected were aged between 3 to 82, and include Buddhist monks.

Of those infected, at least 10 are reported to have died. Local newspapers have put the number of infected at 300.

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

'No intention'

Yem Chhrin was one such practitioner. Some villagers said he had a good reputation for his years of dedicated service to the village by providing treatment even though he lacked formal training or certification.

Em Sovann, the lawyer, said his client has acknowledged reusing syringes for treatment of patients. But he "has repeatedly said before the police and court officials during pre-trial detention that he had no intention to transmit the deadly virus to any of his patients," Em Sovann said.

He said he will try to get the first two charges, murder and intentionally spreading HIV, dropped by the court.

Yem Chhrin's wife, Nhoum Chenda, also urged the court to drop all charges against her husband, saying he never believed that the villagers were infected because of his actions.

"The HIV virus transmitted to those villagers must be from ... something else that we don't know about right now," she said by phone.

She added that since her husband's arrest, she also had to flee to another province, fearing that angry villagers would kill her.

Cambodia had a high HIV prevalence rate of two percent in 1998, but an aggressive campaign to promote safe sex brought the figure down to an estimated 0.7 percent last year, according to the UN agency that spearheads the worldwide fight against AIDS.

Source: Agencies