Ieng Thirith with group of women on tour inspecting the slave labour camps in the northeast in the late 70's
With the arrest of the Iengs - former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and
his wife Thirith, the petite but deadly "Auntie" and highest ranking woman
in the Khmer Rouge - the war crimes tribunal took a big step forward this week leaving
only one more major figure on the current arrest list.
Although the court has not disclosed how many defendants will be charged, in July
five people were identified in the court's first introductory submission as potential
suspects, although their names were not revealed.
Four people have now been arrested leaving only Khieu Samphan, the 76-year-old former
KR head of state, who suffered a mild stroke in his home in Pailin early in the week
and was brought by helicopter to Calmette Hospital, on the arrest list.
It was possible the court will wrap up the arrests soon and serve Samphan with a
warrant at the hospital.
"Where a person is located would not affect the co-investigating judges issuing
a detention order," said Peter Foster, United Nations Assistance to the Khmer
Rouge trial (UNAKRT) spokesman.
"They could be in hospital, in Pailin, on a train in Battambang - their location
is irrelevant. Anyone who may potentially become involved in the court in any capacity,
it is important to us they stay healthy."
Prime Minister Hun Sen said the government provided the helicopter to fly Samphan
to Phnom Penh because of the importance of protecting the health of the aging potential
war crimes defendants. Otherwise "the international community will hold us responsible,"
Samphan was being treated by a number of doctors at the hospital, according to Heng
Tai Kry, director of Calmette. He declined comment Couple on his condition.
Samphan's wife Sar Socheath told the Post November 15 that her husband was "now
able to walk and sit unaided."
Chinese state delegation - headed by Minister of Defense accompanied by top Khmer Rouge leaders - pose in front of Angkor Wat with red flags on the towers.
Pol Pot friends
The Iengs were close friends and associates of Pol Pot dating back to the 1950s when
they all met in Paris. Thirith's sister was Pol Pot's first wife, Khieu Ponnary,
who went insane and died in 2002. Thirith devoted her time in the years prior to
Ponnary's death to nursing her. All four studied in Paris and returned to Cambodia
in the late 1950s to join the guerrilla movement which would later overthrow the
Lon Nol government.
Ieng Sary, 82, was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. Thirith was
charged only with crimes against humanity. War crimes are crimes which happen in
war time. Crimes against humanity are the deliberate and intentional killing of large
numbers of civilians for political or other purposes.
Historians and experts on the Khmer Rouge era said the arrests are a good sign.
"I am quite up-beat about the tribunal now that the Iengs are under lock and
key," said historian David Chandler.
"These arrests are very significant. It will be interesting to see where they
will try to place the blame for the excesses of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and also
to see how much of the excesses they will admit, in the face of overwhelming evidence."
According to Philip Short, author of Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, "the fact
that Ieng Sary will stand trial gives the process vastly greater credibility. To
put the other surviving leaders on trial and leave Sary - a member of the CPK Standing
Committee - at liberty would have made a mockery of the proceedings."
In the ECCC detention cells, the Iengs joined Brother No. 2, Nuon Chea, and Kaing
Guek Eav or Duch, the head of the S-21 torture center.
The Iengs are being kept in separate cells and treated "as individuals not a
couple," said Foster. "They have not made any specific requests for special
food, or different amenities in their cells as of yet," Foster said.
Sary will be represented by Cambodian attorney Ang Udom. Thirith has chosen to be
represented by Cambodian Phat Pouv Seang and a foreign lawyer, Diana Ellis. Ellis
is a member of the Bar of England and Wales and a Queen's Counsel appointee, with
extensive experience in international criminal law.
Although they own a three-story villa in the middle class district of Chamkar Morn,
the couple stated they do not have the means to pay for their defense lawyers. Their
defense team will be funded through the ECCC's Legal Assistance Scheme whilst this
claim is being assessed, the ECCC said in a statement.
The Iengs have long denied any role in the "excesses" of the regime. On
August 26, 1996, a small group of journalists was invited to interview Sary after
he broke away from Pol Pot and his hard-line faction. When asked if amnesty was one
of the conditions for his joining the government, he responded "I have made
no mistakes for them to excuse me."
He pinned the blame for the massacres, killings, and executions - including of intellectuals,
who he admitted he "gathered to come help build the country" - on "a
committee which considered all questions about security, which comprised four people:
Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Son Sen and Son Sen's advisor Yun Yat."
Elizabeth Becker, author of When the war was over, told the Post that Sary has consistently
denied knowledge of the killings. She interviewed Sary on July 22, 1981 at the DK
mission at the UN. Sary has "never acknowledged in an interview with me that
he knew of the killings," she said.
"He said he believed both in the enemies trying to sabotage the regime and in
the role of S-21, but he claimed he didn't know people were killed there, only that
they were interrogated and then sent to re-education," she said.
According to Chandler, it is unlikely the testimony of Ieng Sary and Thirith will
shed much light on the inner workings of the DK regime.
"Their view of 'the inner workings of DK,' I suspect, will be that they knew
almost nothing about them."
Historians agree that the Standing Committee was the collective head of the CPK,
and everything that was done in DK was done on the Standing Committee's orders. Sary
and Nuon Chea, are the sole survivors of that body.
Until now, Sary has always claimed that he was responsible for foreign affairs and
was himself in a vulnerable position in the DK hierarchy. "Every time I came
back to Phnom Penh from abroad I wondered if I would be arrested," he told journalists
in 1996, implying he was not in control.
"He will say anything to save his skin," said Chandler. "He must have
known that as people disappeared from the top echelons of the CPK, starting in 1976,
they were dead, and not under house arrest somewhere. I suspect that he viewed these
killings as necessary. So did Pol Pot. There's no way that he didn't know that enemies
of DK were systematically 'smashed.' The collective leadership of DK, of which Ieng
Sary was a fully paid up member, is collectively responsible for the horrors on the
Laurence Picq, who was married to Sikoeun, one of Sary's advisors and was part of
a unit called B1 - the Ministry of Foreign affairs under Ieng Sary during the DK
period - said Sary is "a criminal whose only equal is the Nazi fascists of Hitler's
Germany." His Ministry functioned, she wrote in her book Beyond the Horizon:
Five years with the Khmer Rouge as "an antechamber of death."
"Ieng Sary has a major responsibility in massacre and genocide," she wrote
in a comment piece in the Post in 1996 following his Royal pardon. "He is a
liar; he is corrupt."
Whether Ieng Sary will be able to continue to assert his innocence in court is in
doubt, given his membership on the CPK Standing Committee.
"That is what he is being tried for. No one claims that Milosevic carried out
ethnic cleansing with his own hands," said Short. He could have jumped ship
at any moment. He didn't. He stuck with the regime till 1996," Short told the
The aunt's role
Entries in a notebook discovered in DC-Cam in 1999 record two speeches by Ieng Thirith
in her capacity as the "Aunt Representing the Social Action Ministry Committee"
and "the Representative of the Party for Social Action." Thirith was Democratic
Kampuchea Minister for Social Action, and a former worker in the ministry now living
in Phnom Penh confirmed to DC-Cam that these titles were used to refer to her.
The Thirith speeches were made in late May and June 1978 during the murderous purge
that wiped out most of the leading Communist Party cadre of Democratic Kampuchea's
In the first speech she praises her "comrades" in the Ministry for having
"clearly differentiate[d]" during the purge between "those who have
betrayed the nation and those who have not betrayed the nation," while warning
ominously that those in the Ministry who don't mend their "liberal" ways
will "inevitably fall into the pit of darkness." "Are you on the side
of the Party or on the side of the Yuon?" the speech states. Yuon refers to
The second speech refers to purges in the East, proclaiming that a coup d'etat in
the East Zone that had supposedly been plotted together with the "Yuon"
had been "totally smashed." Smashing was the KR euphemism for killing.
Short said that with the new arrests, there are three distinct types of defendants
now in custory.
First, those who made the policies which caused mass death: Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary.
Second, those who played senior roles in the regime but did not make policy: Ieng
Thirith and Khieu Samphan. Third, those who executed policy, such as Duch.
The two defendants - Sary and Thirith - will be tried separately, said Foster. Duch's
case has already been seperated from the other individuals who have been charged.