PHNOM PENH // One of the leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime will be set free after a court in Cambodia ruled yesterday that she was medically unfit to stand trial for genocide, a decision survivors called shocking and unjust.
Cambodia's United Nations-backed tribunal issued a statement saying that Ieng Thirith, 80, suffers from a progressive, degenerative illness that is likely to be Alzheimer's disease and which diminishes her mental capacity.
"There is no prospect that the accused can be tried in the foreseeable future," the tribunal said. "Experts have confirmed that all treatment options have now been exhausted and that the accused's cognitive impairment is likely irreversible."
She is "unfit to stand trial", the statement said. The decision upheld a ruling that was put on hold pending the opinion of medical experts.
Neth Pheaktra, a tribunal spokesman, said Ieng Thirith would be freed today from the tribunal's detention facility if prosecutors do not appeal.
Ieng Thirith was the Khmer Rouge's minister for social affairs and the regime's most senior-ranking woman. She also was the sister-in-law of the late Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. She is accused of involvement in the "planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges", and was charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, homicide, torture and religious persecution.
Ieng Thirith has said that the charges against her are "100 per cent false" and that she always worked for the benefit of the people.
The UN-backed tribunal is seeking justice for an estimated 1.7 million people who died of starvation, exhaustion, lack of medical care or execution during the communist Khmer Rouge's 1975 to 79 rule.
Three other senior leaders are currently on trial, including Ieng Thirith's husband, Ieng Sary, 86, the regime's former foreign minister. Also on trial are Nuon Chea, 85, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and right-hand man beside Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 80, a former head of state.
The tribunal's statement stressed that Ieng Thirith's release did not mean the charges against her were being withdrawn and that it was not a finding of guilt or innocence.
The tribunal plans to consult annually with experts to see whether future medical advances could render her fit for trial. In the meantime, she cannot leave the country or have contact with other defendants, with the exception of her husband, the statement said.
Survivors of the Khmer Rouge era were stunned, including Bou Meng, 71, whose wife and two children were executed at the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh.
"I am shocked," Bou Meng said. "I had always hoped that the Khmer Rouge leaders would be brought to court for justice - but now they are freeing her."
He called it "a mockery to the deaths of so many Cambodian people".
"Where is the justice for my dead wife and children?"