Khmer Rouge figure escapes prosecution

Ieng Thirith, wife of ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary, to be freed after war-crimes court rules her unfit to stand trial.

Khmer Rouge "First Lady" escapes prosecution
This 2010 file photo shows Ieng Thirith before a special tribunal prosecuting the Cambodian genocide [AFP]

The former “first lady” of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime has been freed after the country’s war crimes tribunal ruled she was unfit to stand trial.

The UN-backed tribunal ordered the 80-year-old Ieng Thirith, who experts say suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease, to be freed on Thursday but the move was delayed after prosecutors requested tighter conditions.

“The accused Ieng Thirith has been released with some provisional conditions,” Neth Pheaktra, court spokesman, told AFP news agency on Sunday after the release of Ieng Thirith.

Prosecutors made a last-ditch effort before the country’s supreme court to stop the release, saying the lower court’s decision did not include their requested conditions, which includes the confiscation of Ieng Thirith’s passport.

The former social affairs minister and sister-in-law of the late architect of the 1970s Killing Fields revolution, Pol Pot, was accused of being involved in the “planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges” and was charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, homicide and torture.

Highest-ranking woman

Ieng Thirith was the highest-ranking woman in the Maoist organisation facing prosecution. Her husband, 86-year-old Ieng Sary, the regime’s former foreign minister, is one of three other senior leaders currently on trial.

Also on trial are 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and No 2 leader behind Pol Pot, and 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, a former head of state.

An estimated  two million people were killed between 1975 and 1979 during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Pol Pot also escaped prosecution following his death 1998.

The long-delayed tribunal started in 2006, nearly three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, following years of wrangling between Cambodia and the UN.

The lengthy delays have been costly and raised fears that the frail surviving Khmer Rouge leaders could die before their verdicts come.

The court has so far completed just one case, sentencing former Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch to life in jail this year for overseeing the deaths of some 15,000 people.

Survivors of the Khmer Rouge have called Ieng Thirith’s release shocking and unjust. They say they have waited more than 30 years for justice and find it hard to feel compassion for Ieng Thirith’s suffering.

Youk Chhang, a leading Khmer Rouge researcher who lost many relatives during the Killing Fields era, said the decision to release Ieng Thirith due to poor mental health was “a wake-up call” to the court.

“It has been taking too long to deliver justice to millions of victims in Cambodia,” he told AFP.

Killing Fields era

Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge dismantled modern society and wiped out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, overwork and execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.

One of the few women in the Khmer Rouge leadership, Paris-educated Ieng Thirith is believed to have been involved in some of the murderous movement’s most drastic policies.

She remained a staunch defender of the regime long after its demise in the 1990s.

The ongoing second trial of the three ex-leaders is seen as vital to healing wounds in the still-traumatised nation, but campaigners have voiced dismay at the slow progress of proceedings given the advanced age of the defendants.

The health of Ieng Sary, 86, is of particular concern. The frail former foreign minister is currently in hospital with fatigue.

Source: News Agencies