Just days into the new year, hearings at the Khmer Rouge tribunal were postponed indefinitely yesterday after Brother Number Two Nuon Chea was hospitalised with acute bronchitis.
Monday’s hearing ended almost as soon as it began, with the courtroom adjourning after less than half an hour on receiving word that co-accused Nuon Chea had been admitted to the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital after collapsing on Sunday afternoon.
According to Nuon Chea defence counsel Victor Koppe, the 86-year-old ex-deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea had not indicated whether he waived his right to be present during the proceedings, necessitating an adjournment while the defence determined whether Nuon Chea would choose to allow proceedings to continue in his absence.
“We received a medical report, we assume a preliminary medical report, that due to his condition, he will stay four to seven days in hospital,” said Koppe, requesting an adjournment that would allow him to confer with his client.
Though details were scarce, the medical report, which was read aloud in court, stated that Nuon Chea suffered from “severe bronchitis”.
For their part, the prosecution agreed that an adjournment was a “reasonable” request.
Though Nuon Chea’s health has been better than that of co-accused Ieng Sary – who suffers from a host of ailments and had to be hospitalised for two months late last year – he, too, faces long-standing health problems.
He frequently spends at least half the day out of the courtroom, following the trial via video monitor while resting in his holding cell.
When proceedings began in 2011, Nuon Chea’s poor condition prevented him from testifying for more than a few hours each morning.
At the time, noting the difficulty with which Nuon Chea moved around, Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn even suggested that he be given a wheelchair to ease the process.
A hearing is scheduled for March to determine Nuon Chea’s ability to stand trial, but Cambodian Justice Initiative program officer Long Panhavuth said that though the hospitalisation may cause delays, it was unlikely to have an impact on his fitness hearing.
“I would say that it is possible that the Nuon Chea defence team will try to convince the court that he is [unfit]. It is part of the fair trial rights to do that,” Panhavuth said.
“But last time, [the court] already did an assessment that said ‘yes, he is fit to stand trial’, so I don’t think that is going to change.”
The issue of the defendants’ health, however, has been a perennial one at the court.
Citing a “real concern as to whether the accused will be physically and mentally able to participate in a lengthy trial”, the Trial Chamber at the start of Case 002 was even prompted to subdivide the case against the four senior leaders – now three, after the conditional release of dementia-stricken ex-Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith.
The shorter mini-trials, it was reasoned, would at least allow the court to hand down verdicts for some of the alleged crimes before the remaining defendants die or are deemed unfit to stand.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at [email protected]