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UN court to free ex-Khmer Rouge leader on medical grounds

A UN-backed court trying members of the former Khmer Rouge regime said Thursday that it will free Ieng Thirith, 80, a former social affairs minister and the sister-in-law of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, after ruling her medically unfit to stand trial.

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A former Khmer Rouge leader is to be set free after a Cambodian court ruled Thursday that she was medically unfit to stand trial, a decision criticised by many survivors of the brutal regime.

Ieng Thirith, 80, formerly a social affairs minister and the sister-in-law of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, is one of only a few people ever brought before a court for the atrocities committed during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge era.

The UN-backed tribunal issued a statement saying that Ieng Thirith suffers from a degenerative illness that is likely Alzheimer’s disease. “There is no prospect that the accused can be tried in the foreseeable future,” the tribunal said in a statement. “Experts have confirmed that all treatment options have now been exhausted and that the accused’s cognitive impairment is likely irreversible.”

Regime killed estimated 1.7 million people

Ieng is accused of involvement in the “planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges” and was charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, homicide, torture and religious persecution. Led by “Brother No. 1” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the hardline communist regime killed an estimated 1.7 million people through starvation, forced labour and execution as it ruthlessly pursued its quest for an agrarian utopia.

Ieng has in the past denied the accusations against her, calling them “100 percent false”.

The UN tribunal’s statement stressed that Ieng’s release does not mean the charges against her are being withdrawn and is not a ruling on her guilt or innocence.

Prosecutors have conceded that Ieng was unlikely ever to answer the charges against her due to her failing health and advanced age.

Three other regime leaders still face trial at the UN court, including Ieng’s 86-year-old husband, Ieng Sary, the regime’s former foreign minister. Also facing charges are Nuon Chea, 85, the Khmer Rouge’s ideological mastermind, and Pol Pot’s second in command and a former head of state, Khieu Samphan, 80.

But that offered little consolation to some of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge era, including 71-year-old Bou Meng, whose wife and two children were executed at Phnom Penh’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21.

“I am shocked,” Bou Meng told journalists following the news of Ieng’s release. “I had always hoped that the Khmer Rouge leaders would be brought to court for justice -- but now they are freeing her.”

He called it “a mockery to the deaths of so many Cambodian people”, adding: “Where is the justice for my dead wife and children?”
 

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

 

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