Updated at 11:40 a.m. EST on 2012-09-14
A U.N.-backed war tribunal on Thursday ordered the “First Lady” of Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime released from detention after reaffirming its assessment that she is unfit to stand trial due to a degenerative illness.
Ieng Thirith, the 80-year-old former social affairs minister of the Khmer Rouge, is among four surviving members of the ultra-Maoist movement’s leadership currently on trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Up to two million Cambodians died of disease, exhaustion, starvation, and execution during the regime’s rule from 1975-1979.
Ieng Thirith was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year and had been excused from court proceedings while she received medical treatment in prison.
But the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the tribunal is officially known, said in a statement Thursday that experts had confirmed that all treatment options had been exhausted and that Ieng Thirith’s cognitive impairment is “likely irreversible.”
“On the basis of the court-appointed medical experts’ report and testimony, the Trial Chamber has today reaffirmed its prior finding that the accused Ieng Thirith suffers from a progressive, degenerative illness (likely Alzheimer’s disease) and that she remains unfit to stand trial,” the statement said.
The ECCC said that it had indefinitely stayed proceedings against Ieng Thirith with no prospect that she could be tried in the foreseeable future, but said it would not drop the charges against her.
“In these circumstances ... the Chamber is obliged to order the accused’s release from detention,” the statement said.
“It should be emphasised that a finding of unfitness to stand trial is not a finding on the guilt or innocence of the accused Ieng Thirith, nor does it have the effect of withdrawing the charges against the accused,” it added.
The ECCC said that it lacked any legal basis to impose “coercive conditions” against Ieng Thirith upon her release, but noted that those conditions would be “difficult to enforce, given the accused’s mental capacity” and that she would be incapable of remembering or complying with them.
However, tribunal Chief of Public Affairs Dim Sovannarom told RFA that despite the order to release Ieng Thirith, she would remain subject to certain restrictions following her release.
“The accused cannot interfere with the court’s affairs. She can’t communicate with the other witnesses, victims, or other defendants, except for her husband Ieng Sary,” he said. Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary is one of the other three members of the leadership on trial.
“She will not be allowed to leave Cambodia and if she changes her address she must inform the court. She also can’t speak with the media.”
The ECCC said in its statement that as Alzheimer’s disease is currently incurable, it had ordered no further medical assessments for Ieng Thirith. But the court said it would consult with medical experts annually to determine whether new treatments might render her fit to stand trial in the future.
Long Panhavuth, a legal expert with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which monitors the tribunal, called the release “fair,” but said it would be difficult for the victims of the Khmer Rouge to accept.
“It will be difficult for the victims to accept her release. However … it is a fair decision because the court can’t try anyone who is unfit,” he said.
Ieng Thirith attended university in France where she became the first Cambodian to earn a degree in English literature and met her future husband.
But after becoming involved in radical politics, the two returned to Cambodia and joined with Pol Pot and his wife—her sister Khieu Ponnary—to form the nucleus of the Khmer Rouge movement.
The regime drastically reordered Cambodian society in the 1970s, driving people out of towns and cities and abolishing money, schools, and religion.
When the Khmer Rouge was finally put down in the 1990s, Ieng Thirith remained a defender of the movement.
Since her arrest, along with her husband, in 2007, Ieng Thirith has repeatedly denied her involvement in the atrocities committed by the regime and has refused to cooperate with the war tribunal.
Though her health had been a continuous concern, it wasn’t until last year that she was excused from the court proceedings due to her cognitive illness.
In May, her husband, 86-year-old Ieng Sary, was hospitalized with breathing problems, underscoring the health concerns for the elderly ex-leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
He is the eldest and least healthy of the three men, and is the first to be admitted to hospital during the trial proceedings.
Theirs is the second case undertaken by the ECCC after successfully trying an earlier one against former prison chief Duch in February, jailing him for life on appeal for overseeing the deaths of some 15,000 people.
But despite spending nearly U.S. $150 million since it was established six years ago, the ECCC has handed down only one sentence and has been mired in allegations of corruption and interference.
In March, International co-prosecuting judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet of Switzerland resigned from the tribunal, only to be followed by his replacement, Siegfried Blunk of Germany, in October. Both judges cited government interference to trial progress as their reason for leaving the court.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, and other Cambodian officials have often expressed opposition to any further prosecutions in the Tribunal beyond the second trial.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Dim Sovannarom as ECCC spokesman. He is the tribunal's chief of public affairs.