Although his advanced age and frail state could sharpen the edge of even a minor illness, Khmer Rouge tribunal defendant Nuon Chea is physically and mentally fit to stand trial, according to two medical experts who testified at the war crimes court yesterday.
Professor John Campbell, a New Zealander who specialises in geriatrics, and Dr Seena Fazel, a British forensic psychiatrist based at the University of Oxford, told the Trial Chamber and legal teams that their examinations showed no significant decline in Chea’s overall health.
He also has fully recovered from the attack of acute bronchitis that sent him to hospital earlier this year, and Campbell said a recent Chea request to have his family around him to bid him farewell could have been the result of a temporary delirium confined to the illness.
The relatively clean bill of health, however, is by no means a suggestion that Chea is a boisterous octogenarian. He’s being treated for heart ailments, suffers from long-standing back problems, hypertension, has trouble standing, gets dizzy and is sometimes constipated, most of which are by-products of his advanced age of 86.
“Nuon Chea is a frail and elderly man. His frailty is due in part due to his age and his underlying health conditions,” Campbell said, adding that his lack of movement was also a factor.
Chea “takes no physical activity, he spends most of the day lying on his bed. So it’s not surprising that he has become weaker in terms of his muscular strength,” he said.
Campbell recommended that Chea do some form of exercise, perhaps with a physical fitness trainer and that he leave from his detention cell well before the proceedings begin so that he has time to recover from the short, but tiring trip.
The hearing occurred at a time when the health of defendants is posing a serious threat to the court’s ability to complete its work. The Trial Chamber was forced to terminate its case against former Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs and Chea’s co-defendant Ieng Sary after he died on March 14. Sary would have been included in yesterday’s hearing.
Months earlier, the court freed Sary’s wife, Ieng Thirith, – who was also being tried with Chea, Khieu Samphan and Sary in Case 002 − on account of her deteriorating mental health.
For a few moments in the hearing, Campbell hinted that Chea’s future, because of his age, did not look so good. In an exchange with Judge Silvia Cartwright, who pressed Campbell to go into more detail on his final summary, he said that he would not be surprised if Chea died within six months.
“Life is very unpredictable at 86, especially with the underlying problems that he has,” Campbell said.
In a later response to the prosecution, though, he sought to qualify the remark, lest anyone believe he was making predictions.
“Don’t take six months too literally, one cannot prognosticate with any accuracy in this situation,” he said. “Would I be surprised if he wasn’t alive in six months? No. Would I be surprised if he was alive in six months? No.”
Fazel, the forensic psychiatrist, said Chea scored a 28 out of 30 in a cognitive ability test, and that only a mark of 23 or less would be indicative of impairment.
He also asked him several questions about the trial, his personal life and the charges before him, which Chea repeatedly denied.
When asked to explain the charges, “he said he’d been accused of genocide and war crimes and he also said that he was aware that crimes against humanity was a common accusation made towards the Khmer Rouge,” Fazel explained. “He said that genocide meant killing of one’s own race.”
Fazel concluded that Chea’s mental health and cognitive functions are “good”.
“He listens to the radio, he talks to staff at the detention centre … We have no specific recommendations.”
Son Arun, the national defence attorney for Chea, said he was “ambivalent” about whether the responses the experts gave were sufficient, and he specifically questioned the statement by Campbell that his client did not have any remaining bruises sustained in a recent fall. He said he had administered his own short-term memory tests with conflicting results. His colleague, Victor Koppe, said that Chea had to be reminded of the court’s schedule a number of times on the same day.
“At this juncture, I would like to honestly suggest to the chamber that my client be referred to the hospital to get his diseases and ailments treated properly before he is ordered to participate in the proceedings,” he said.
The Trial Chamber will announce its decision on Friday. It is also expected to rule in the same session on whether to keep Case 002 split into mini-trials or expand the scope to include additional charges.
According to international co-prosecutor Dale Lysak, there is only one way to go when it comes to deciding on his health.
“It is crystal clear from the report that he understands the nature of the proceedings and is able to participate in his defence,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at [email protected]