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Ieng Thirith
AFP/Archives/Heng Sinith

The Washington Post is reporting that the UN-backed Cambodia war crimes tribunal, the ECCC, has found Ieng Thirith unfit to stand trial on the grounds of diminished capacity due to Alzheimer’s disease. Ieng Thirith has been reported as showing signs of dementia.

This comes just four days before the start of Case 002 in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia which is focusing on crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, a communist, Maoist party that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Pol Pot

The Khmer Rouge set up a radical form of agrarian communism whereby population was set to work on the land and the urban, educated population was removed from cities.  Working conditions were extreme and between 20 and 25% of the population was literally worked to death.  It has proved impossible to gauge accurate figures but estimates say that between 850,000 and 1.5 million men, women and children died from execution, torture, forced work or starvation.

Case 001 of the ECCC was against Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in prison in July 2010.  Duch was the prison chief of the notorious Tuol Sleng Jail (S-21) in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge regime and was responsible for the deaths of approximately 15,000 people.

Public gallery of Cambodia Tribunal
Public gallery during testimony of S-21 survivor Vann Nath on 29 June 2009 [Source: ECCC]

Case 002, due to start on 21 November 2011, is the case against Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith.  This case is in an entirely different league to the former case as it is against four former high-ranking, government officials. 

Khieu Samphan, aged 79, was the former Head of State; Nuon Chea, aged 84, was former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea; Ieng Sary, aged 85, was the former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs; and his wife, Ieng Thirith, aged 78, was the former Minister of Social Affairs.

Despite the numbers of people that perished during the Khmer Rouge regime, legally, the event is not classified as a genocide because the perpetrators were of the same nationality and ethnic group as the victims and there was no systematic attempt to destroy a certain ethnic, racial, religious or national group.

Therefore, case 002 brought charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the four defendants.

Nevertheless, in December 2009, charges of genocide were brought against Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan and later against Ieng Thirith in relation to the brutal slaughter and oppression of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minorities during the Khmer Rouge era.  Charges of murder, imprisonment and torture have also been brought against the defendants.

The Cambodia Tribunal was always going to be problematic in that they only began 30 years after the brutal events of the Khmer Rouge era.  We are experiencing similar problems with aging defendants with the Ratko Mladić trial less than 20 years after the events.  The difficulty is that these people committed unspeakable acts and the trials are as important for the punitive element as they are in unearthing the atrocities that were committed.  The ECCC is beset by scandal and setbacks at present and I just hope that they can push through and get to the bottom of this senseless and tragic time in Cambodian history.

About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is an accountant living and working in London. She is passionate about world events such as genocide and apartheid and has a desire to understand how these events continue to occur in the modern world. With a focus on the 20th and 21st centuries, A Passion to Understand reflects her continuing research and reading on these topics.
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