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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer Rouge's top lady makes plea for freedom

Khmer Rouge's top lady makes plea for freedom

ieng-thirith-02.jpg
ieng-thirith-02.jpg

At times appearing confused, 76-year-old Ieng Thirith faced the Extraordinary Chambers on Wednesday to to ask for bail. (Chor Sokunthea/Pool)

 

Former Khmer Rouge minister Ieng Thirith, who was the regime's top-ranking female member, appeared publicly before Cambodia's genocide tribunal for the first time on May 21 as she appealed against her pre-trial detention at the UN-backed court.

Thirith, who served as social affairs minister during the regime's 1975-79 rule over Cambodia, is charged with crimes against humanity.

She is one of five former Khmer Rouge leaders, including her husband Ieng Sary, who have been arrested by the court, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC.

The diminutive, bespectacled 76-year-old appeared confused at times, failing once to remember how many children she had and refusing to make a final statement following the nearly nine hour hearing, telling the court that she was "unwell."

"I have high blood pressure and when I get angry it rises rapidly," said Thirith, who was seized by authorities from her Phnom Penh home in November.

Her lawyers argued that Thirith should not be judged by the alleged crimes of her husband, who served as the regime foreign minister and has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Thirith's relationship with Sary should "not be used to criminalize the charged party," said her foreign lawyer, British QC Diane Ellis.

The court must "consider position of charged person separately from that of the other four accused," Ellis said.

Thirith's Cambodian lawyer, Phat Pouv Seang, has earlier said that his client's deteriorating mental health should be grounds enough for her release, telling the Post that he had Thai-language medical documents proving that she was not fit to stand trial.

Both Thirith and her husband traveled frequently to Thailand for medical treatment before their arrest amid rumors that the pair had amassed vast wealth from deals made during the chaotic last days of the Khmer Rouge in the 1990s.

But her lawyers denied suggestions that Thirith and her husband had sacked away large amounts of money, telling the court that she did not own property in Cuba, and that her home in the capital belonged to a daughter.

Many Cambodians attending the hearing dismissed the defense's claims that Thirith should be treated differently from other regime leaders.

"I will not be happy if the court releases Thirith or other KR leaders ... because during their time in power they treated Cambodian people very badly like animals," said 60 year-old Sam Soeun, who traveled to the capital from Preah Vihear province.

"I came here in the hopes that the court will find justice for me and for all the other victims," he said.

Up to two million people died of starvation, disease and overwork, or were executed as the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge exiled the country's population into vast collective farms in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia in what was to become one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Tribunal spokeswoman Helen Jarvis told the Post that the hearing had gone smoothly, despite repeated closed sessions that kept the participants in court into the evening.

"There was a lot to get through and remember we had five civil parties for this case," Jarvis said, explaining that the long hours "did not signal anything." 

A decision on the appeal is expected in the coming weeks.

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