Nuon Chea, the former notorious Khmer Rouge regime’s chief ideologist, is fit to stand trial for war crimes and genocide, medical experts told Cambodia’s U.N.-backed tribunal on Monday, following calls to speed up the court’s proceedings after co-defendant Ieng Sary’s death.
But Nuon Chea’s defense lawyer told the court that the 86-year-old “Brother Number Two” to ruthless Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot could not stand trial because he is in critical condition and suffering from high blood pressure, constipation, and muscle problems.
“My client’s health condition is deteriorating, and if the court forces him to stand trial it would be a form of abuse,” lawyer Son Arun said.
Nuon Chea, who has denied committing war crimes and genocide during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge’s “reign of terror,” has suffered a number of illnesses, including acute bronchitis and back pain, and has been hospitalized several times.
But a geriatrician and a psychiatrist who examined Nuon Chea testified on Monday to the tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chamers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), that the trial should move ahead.
“From a physical point of view, I felt he is well enough to continue with the trial," said John Campbell, a geriatrician from New Zealand.
British forensic psychiatrist Seena Fazel said Nuon Chea’s mental health and cognitive function "is currently good” and that he has no problems with short-term or long-term memory.
The court will make the decision on March 29, ECCC Pre-Trial Chamber judge Nil Nonn said.
In the wake of Ieng Sary's death
Monday's hearing came just over a week after co-defendant Ieng Sary died while still on trial, prompting calls from rights groups and the U.N. to speed up proceedings for Nuon Chea and the other remaining defendant Khieu Samphan.
Following Ieng Sary’s death from cardiac failure on March 14 at age 87, civil parties in the ECCC expressed “deep regret” that the regime’s former foreign minister had passed away before providing an account of his role during the Khmer Rouge era and without being held accountable for his actions.
Out of five Khmer Rouge leaders indicted by the ECCC in 2007, the court has so far completed just one case, sentencing former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to life in jail for overseeing the deaths of some 15,000 people.
Last year, the court suspended proceedings against Ieng Thirith, the regime’s social affairs minister and Ieng Sary’s wife, who was deemed unfit for trial after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Khieu Samphan, 81, former Khmer Rouge head of state, has also suffered health problems and denies charges against him.
Accomplishing caseload 'doubtful'
The U.S.-based Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a nongovernmental organization that monitors proceedings at the ECCC, has raised concerns that between the health of the aging defendants and funding problems that have plagued the tribunal’s staff, it is likely the court might not ever achieve its aims of sentencing war criminals.
“It remains doubtful that the [court] will successfully complete its current caseload and make a positive contribution to ending impunity and increasing respect for the rule of law in Cambodia,” the group said in a report on Friday.
Earlier this month, Cambodian members of the ECCC’s interpretation and translation unit went on strike after they had not received their wages in months.
The strike was halted after the European Union provided temporary funds to pay December salaries, but OSJI warned that it “remains uncertain” when funds will be available for 2013 salaries and whether staff will strike again if the matter is not resolved.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.