HNOM PENH: Cambodia’s war crimes court ordered the release on Thursday of Ieng Thirith, dubbed the “First Lady” of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, saying the 80-year-old was unfit to stand trial.
The UN-backed tribunal said there was “no prospect that the accused can stand trial in the foreseeable future”, handing a bitter blow to survivors of the 1975-1979 regime, blamed for the deaths of up to two million people.
Ieng Thirith, the ex-social affairs minister and the sister-in-law of regime leader Pol Pot, was one of only a handful of people ever brought before a court for atrocities during the Khmer Rouge era.
The accused “suffers from a progressive, degenerative illness (likely Alzheimer’s disease)”, the court statement read, adding “that she remains unfit to stand trial”. She is expected to be released on Friday.
She was accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity and the court said her impending release “is not a finding on the guilt or innocence” nor does it withdraw the charges against her.
Three other ageing top former regime leaders — including her husband, former foreign minister Ieng Sary — remain on trial.
The case, the tribunal’s second and most important, 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.
One of the few women in the Khmer Rouge leadership, Ieng Thirith remained a staunch defender of the regime long after its demise in the 1990s.
She was arrested in 2007, along with her husband, and has been held in detention ever since, denying the charges against her and refusing to co-operate with the court.
Prosecutors had already conceded she was unlikely to ever answer the charges because of her failing health and last month recommended her release.
But after the court announcement deputy co-prosecutor William Smith told AFP that they were “deciding whether or not we will take any legal steps”.
Ieng Thirith’s Cambodian lawyer Phat Pouv Seang greeted the decision as a “success” adding she would be released within 24 hours, barring an appeal against the court decision.
A court spokesman confirmed she was set to be freed on Friday.
The court said it recognised that the extent of Ieng Thirith’s illness meant she would be incapable of remembering or adhering to any conditions, but stipulated that she should not interfere in the case in any way and remains in Cambodia.
Khmer Rouge victims met the decision with dismay.
“I cannot oppose the court, but I am not happy with its decision,” said Bou Meng, 71, one of only a handful of people to survive incarceration in Tuol Sleng, one of the regime’s notorious torture prisons.
“The decision is mocking the souls of the dead, including my wife and children. It is hard to receive justice from the court now.”
But some observers said the decision was just, given Ieng Thirith’s poor health.
“The important principle at stake is that no matter how bad the allegations are against someone, they can only be tried if they have adequate mental capacity to defend themselves fully,” tribunal monitor Clair Duffy, of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said.
Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the hardline communist movement wiped out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, forced labour and execution, in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia.
Co-defendants Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan deny charges including war crimes and genocide.
Owing to fears that not all the suspects will live to see a verdict, the court has split their complex case into several smaller trials, starting with the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and related crimes against humanity.
The trials have been dogged by funding problems and accusations of political interference from Cambodia’s current government, which counts many former Khmer Rouge figures within its ranks.