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Questions loom over Ieng Thirith's safety

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Buddhist monks walk past Ieng Thirith’s house in Phnom Penh on Sunday. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

Freeing ex-Khmer Rouge minister Ieng Thirith on mental-health grounds has created a public conversation about the balance between justice for victims and the human rights of an ageing, 80-year-old woman suffering from dementia. 

But another question looms large as Thirith, the former Minister of Social Affairs, and Pol Pot’s sister-in-law, re-enters Cambodian society: is she safe?

When the Supreme Court Chamber ordered her release on Sunday, the ruling focused on travel restraints and prevented Thirith leaving the country.

She has to surrender her passport, for one thing, and provide an address to the court.

The issues will come up again when the chamber hears an earlier appeal from the prosecution on whether conditions should be imposed on Thirith’s life outside. There was nothing, however, about the need for security, or the recognition that the anger of victims could translate into the urge to settle the past outside of the courtroom.

“The SCC President’s rule is silent on that matter,” tribunal spokeswoman Yuko Maeda said in an email. “I am not in a position to speculate why it is so.”

A friend of the family previously told the Post that Thirith would stay with relatives at her villa in Phnom Penh, and on Friday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court appointed Thirith’s daughter, Ieng Chivida, to serve as her general guardian.

When contacted by the Post yesterday, the daughter declined to comment.

Lieutenant General Mao Chandara, head of security at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said he did not receive any advice from the judge to provide security for Thirith at her home.

“I think she is under protection like other ordinary people, and there is no special protection for her since she has already left the jail.

Thirith’s defence lawyer, Phat Pouy Seang brushed off security concerns, saying that Thirith is just another member of society now.

“She can live simply like other Cambodians; the local authority is controlling the security for their people, so they also provide the safety for her. Giving security at her house, it would seem like she is still in detention, like she is not free.”

History, at least recent history, suggests that safety is not a concern.

Before the arrests related to case Case 002, Thirith lived with her husband, co-accused Ieng Sary, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs. The other two co-accused, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, lead similarly unguarded lives.

Acts of revenge, if they happened, occurred just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Several escaped any kind of justice.

“Many Khmer Rouge fled the country, and many ended up in Canada, Australia and France. Some moved around the country. Many of them changed their identity, including their birth name.”

As for Thirith: “If she is afraid, it is then clear that she is guilty and the decision is unfair to millions victims of genocide.”

The scene in front of the villa just west of the Tonle Sap was tranquil yesterday, like any other residential neighbourhood. And apart from the high gates that are common to houses and apartment buildings in the capital, no signs of beefed up security were evident.

To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com
Cheang Sokha at sokha.cheang@phnompenhpost.com

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