ROKA COMMUNE, CAMBODIA —
Two years ago in the Roka village commune in Cambodia's Battambang province, Loeum Lorm was one of nearly 300 people to discover he was HIV-positive.
Since learning of his infection, Lorm, 52, has become a volunteer, helping fellow HIV patients receive proper medical treatment. He is also one of many seeking compensation from Yem Chrin, the Roka-based medic whose tainted needles were blamed for the mass infection.
Numerous Roka villagers, he said, have yet to receive compensation.
"I haven't received it yet. I just want to get it for myself, excluding my family," Lorm said. "I, myself, can get at least hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I reduced it, meaning I want to say that I want to get $4,000 for myself."
In December, the Battambang Provincial Court sentenced Chrin to 25 years in prison and fined him 5 million riel (about $1,250) for running the clinic without permission from the Ministry of Health, knowingly infecting people with HIV, and torture, according to court documents.
In total, more than $20,000 in compensation was promised to individual victims, said Leng Monyneath, a former medical staffer at human rights group Licadho. Monyneath observed the court proceedings, which were held last October.
Request needed for compensation
However, Heng Luy, the court's deputy prosecutor, said claimants won't get any money until they formally request to have the compensation released.
"They didn't submit a lawsuit asking the court to implement [the verdict]," Luy said. "Now it seems that they didn't file a complaint about the verdict," which would be required to activate compensation payments.
Another victim, Say Sao, disputes that claim, saying a complaint was filed, but that court officials never responded to it.
"What's going on after the complaint was filed to the court? Is it voided? I am still unsure of this point," she said, adding that neither local authorities nor court officials approached villagers to provide information about specific compensation procedures. "[We] filed the complaint a long time ago, but we didn't hear anything."
Chrin's lawyer, Em Sovann, could not be reached for comment, while Judge Yich Chhear Navy declined to comment on compensation payments.
Lorm said he will seek legal counsel to demand compensation from the court, noting that his family had to sell farmland in order to cover his medical bills.
"I spent a lot of money on treatment. I spent money on the treatment until I lost rice fields, cows and buffalo, so I lost a lot," he said, explaining that he's spent at least $2,800 on treatment, the price of his cattle alone. Other Roka villagers diagnosed in the outbreak, he added, have similar stories of loss.
Elderly, infants have died
Of the 292 people so far identified as having contracted HIV in the outbreak, 276 are known to be receiving antiretroviral drugs, while the other 16 have died.
Sim Pov, the Roka commune chief, said those who died were either elderly or infants, and while treatment continues to be provided, no compensation has yet been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Chrin, 57, has been jailed in Battambang prison and handed a lifetime ban from practicing medicine.
His daughter Chrin Raksa, 27, declined to comment on whether the family could afford to make the compensation payments if there were new claims filed to the court. She said the family was struggling to pay for Chrin's meals at the prison because they're not provided by the state.
Lorm volunteers with Buddhism Center for Development, a Battambang-based NGO.
He said local health centers are ill-equipped and slow to provide medical treatment, which is one reason people turn to off-the-books services such as those provided by Chrin.
"The health center in Roka was slow because doctors always asked for poverty cards," he said, referring to government-issued cards that are handed out to the poorest in society and can secure free treatment at state-run facilities. "If the patients do not have the card, they have to pay for the service and medicine."
Sao agreed with Lorm's assessment, saying there were never doctors on hand at the Roka heal center to treat patients.
"When we arrive, there are no doctors. When we leave there, the doctor would arrive," she said.
Roka health center
Soeun Sophat, a staff member at the Roka commune health center, acknowledged there were shortcomings and that the government clinic did not provide some services offered by private clinicians.
"Normally, the health center does not allow us to provide medicine injections unless it's vaccines that they are assigned to," she said. "It's different from private clinics, where the doctors are always available and provide vaccinations for any patients who want them."
The health center also did not provide services to people with serious health conditions, she added, instead referring them to better-equipped hospitals in Battambang and nearby towns.
Despite the lack of compensation, the Roka villagers have high hopes for the future as discrimination toward those who were infected has begun to subside.
Lorm, however, has appealed to donors to continue to support the victims.
Health center workers had been doing their best to provide better services in the aftermath of the outbreak, he said, while business at the private, largely unregulated clinics has been banned.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.