Ex-Khmer Rouge leader accused over 1.7m murders ‘too ill to stand trial’

One of the leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime will be set free after a court in Cambodia ruled she was medically unfit to stand trial for genocide, a decision survivors called shocking and unjust.

Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal issued a statement saying 80-year-old Ieng Thirith 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.”

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Ieng Thirith, who had claimed the charges against her were “100 per cent false”, is to freed 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 late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

She is accused of involvement in the murder of an estimated 1.7 million people during the communist Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule when it attempted to purge anyone who did not fit its conception of an ideal Marxist.

Three other senior leaders are on trial, including Ieng Thirith’s husband, 86-year-old Ieng Sary, the regime’s former foreign minister. Also on trial are 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and No 2 leader behind the late Pol Pot, and 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, a former head of state.

The tribunal’s statement stressed Ieng Thirith’s release did not mean the charges against her were being withdrawn and that she had not been exonerated.

Survivors of the Khmer Rouge era were stunned, including 71-year-old Bou Meng, 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.”