FORMER Khmer Rouge Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith “most likely” suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, according to a physician who examined her, as new details emerged in hearings yesterday about her fitness to be tried for charges including crimes against humanity and genocide.
John Campbell, a geriatrician from New Zealand who examined the 79-year-old Khmer Rouge “First Lady”, testified yesterday that the she had “significant cognitive impairment”, compromising her ability to participate in the trial against her.
“My conclusions were that Ieng Thirith did have significant cognitive impairment and there were a number of possible causes for that including an underlying dementing illness, which may have been due to either Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia, but most likely a component of Alzheimer’s disease,” Campbell said during public hearings at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Alzheimer’s is an irreversible brain disease that slowly destroys the ability to create new memories, think and carry out routine tasks.
Campbell said other factors might have influenced Ieng Thirith’s cognitive ability, including medications she had been taking, stress and her “social circumstances”, including detention.
Ieng Thirith, one of four defendants in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Case 002, faces charges for her alleged role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979.
The court’s Trial Chamber has said that Ieng Thirith requires further assessment of her mental health, and will schedule additional hearings to consider the pending exams.
Campbell also revealed in testimony that Ieng Thirith had been taking three medications that might have influenced her cognitive abilities.
He said she had been taking two psychotropic drugs – bromazepam and clonazepam – “for a considerable time” and recommended a reduction in both, as the original justification for them was “no longer evident”. Ieng Thirith has been off both drugs for a week and began a reduction in the third.
In one cognitive test, Ieng Thirith was asked to draw the face of a clock with hands indicating a specific time, and Campbell said she was “able to draw a clock face using her own watch as a guide, but wasn’t able to put the hands to indicate a particular time”.
Ieng Thirith appeared attentive during the beginning of the hearing, but spent most of the day in the court’s holding cell.
Khmer Rouge Brother No 2 Nuon Chea has also contested his fitness to stand trial, but his claim was rejected in Campbell’s evaluation. Nil Nonn, president of the Trial Chamber, said at the outset of the hearing that Campbell had concluded “the accused Nuon Chea is not presently unfit to stand trial”.
Nuon Chea told the court before leaving at 10:30am that his health was “deteriorating”, demanding further assessment of his claim that he was unable to concentrate or sit for longer than 90 minutes.
“Even if I try my best to concentrate or remain seated more than that period of time, I cannot do that. And I will have problems understanding or reading any material after this period of time,” he said.
Campbell said during testimony that Nuon Chea’s ability to concentrate for 90 minutes “seems very reasonable”.
Campbell’s divergent assessments of the two accused created a point of tension for the defence teams.
Ieng Thirith defence lawyer Diana Ellis sought to bolster Campbell’s credibility, at one point noting his previous position as dean of the faculty at the school of medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “Not to embarrass you,” Ellis asked, “that, in fact, is a position showing a measure of both seniority and the respect with which you are held by your other professional colleagues?” Campbell replied: “That is correct.”
Nuon Chea legal consultant Jasper Pauw, meanwhile, posed sceptical questions and emphasised the fact that Campbell had never conducted a fitness exam for a criminal trial.
Michiel Pestman, co-defence lawyer for Nuon Chea, said that his team planned to raise “a lot of questions” for Campbell.
“He has never done a fitness to stand trial test before,” Pestman said. “And it’s not a bicycle theft … it’s the biggest case since Nuremberg.”