Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Khmer Rouge Minister of Social Action Ieng Thirith, were arrested Monday morning by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
According to a statement released by the ECCC, Ieng Sary was arrested on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and Ieng Thirith on charges of crimes against humanity.
Eyewitnesses said some 30 police, military police and members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s elite anti-terrorism unit cordoned off the calm, leafy street in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district where the couple resided around 5:30 am.
Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, both in their 70s, were taken from their home in a nine-car motorcade just after 9:30 am. They arrived at the ECCC about 40 minutes later, where they underwent a preliminary medical examination.
The widely-anticipated arrests bring to four the number of defendants at the ECCC, which began work last year. The court has already detained Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, the chief of the notorious Khmer Rouge torture prison S-21, and Nuon Chea, the highest ranking Khmer Rouge leader still alive. The first trial is expected to begin next year.
The $56.3 million tribunal, which has been stained by a management scandal and unresolved charges of corruption, has been under growing pressure to ingratiate itself to donors on the eve of a major fundraising campaign.
“Ieng Sary is the most politically untouchable Khmer Rouge leader and his arrest is a strong message to the Cambodian people,” said Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Ieng Thirith, he added, “has been a very strong, competent woman in the Khmer Rouge regime. She’ll have lots to tell us about what happened.”
Under the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Sary served as First Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs. He was also a member of the regime’s core decision-making body, the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s Central Committee. Like other Khmer Rouge leaders, he has denied responsibility for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, who oversaw the deaths of some 1.7 million people.
Ieng Thirith, who has been dubbed the “First Lady” of the Khmer Rouge, served as minister of social action, and scholars say she was a member of the party’s elite Central Committee. Documents from the Documentation Center of Cambodia assert Ieng Thirith was jointly responsible, with her husband, for foreign affairs. Her sister, Khieu Ponnary, was married to Pol Pot.
In 1976, Ieng Thirith went on a fact-finding mission to northwestern Cambodia to investigate reported health and dietary problems. According to journalist Elizabeth Becker, who has interviewed Ieng Thirith and Ieng Sary, she reported back that Khmer Rouge cadre were disobeying orders and had been infiltrated by enemy agents. In response, Becker wrote, top leaders plotted a purge of the zone.
Attorney Ang Udom, currently the director of the legal unit at the Center for Social Development, said Monday evening he has been selected to represent Ieng Sary. He said he would resign from CSD, where he has worked for a year. He met with Ieng Sary Monday and said his client was sick. “Blood pressure. He’s old,” he said.
Ang Udom added that Cambodian attorney Phat Pouv Seang would represent Ieng Thirith. Phat Pouv Seang could not be reached for comment.
Ieng Sary was sentenced to death in absentia by a 1979 Cambodian tribunal that was widely dismissed as a sham. In 1996, when he and his allied troops defected to the government, he was granted a royal pardon. Even today, his family members hold prominent positions in Pailin municipality, one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds.
On Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen praised the ECCC for bolstering the reputation of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the Vietnam-backed regime led by him and two other Khmer Rouge defectors—current National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim—during the 1980s.
The ECCC is proving to the international community that Pol Pot’s clique, which held Cambodia’s seat at the UN until the early 1990s, deserved legal sanction, Hun Sen said in a speech in Siem Reap province.
“Now they have recognized us because they are taking Pol Pot [allies] for prosecution. It means those who thought we were wrong 28 years ago, they are now giving us credit that we did the right things,” Hun Sen said.
Ieng Sary’s son, Ieng Vuth, currently a deputy governor in Pailin, declined to comment Monday.
Few in Pailin seemed surprised—or troubled—by news of the arrests.
Pailin Deputy Governor Ich Sarou said the arrests had been long anticipated and would set the historical record straight. “The prosecution before was recognized nationally,” he said, adding: “Now it is internationally recognized.”
Kong Duong, a former Khmer Rouge radio broadcaster who is now the director of Pailin’s department of information, said he has long been awaiting this day, but he urged the tribunal to try the couple justly. “Those former leaders should testify at court, so people can understand what was happening during the regime. They are still alive so they should be brave,” he said.
Phnom Penh neighbors expressed satisfaction at the arrest.
Chhay Soma, 56, who has lived near Ieng Sary for five years, said 10 members of his family were killed by the Khmer Rouge. “I am happy to see the arrest. I have been waiting too long,” he said. Another neighbor, Sek Haing, 70, said he lost three members of his family to the Khmer Rouge. “I almost got killed,” he said. “I hope the court will give me justice.”
Ngoy Mao, a 24-year-old economics student living at nearby Wat Svay Pope pagoda, said he had heard Ieng Sary was a notorious Khmer Rouge leader but was not sure exactly what position he had held. He had never heard of Ieng Thirith before. Still, he praised the arrests for bringing an end to decades of impunity.
“It’s quite amazing—he was a leader during the Khmer Rouge, and now he lives a happy life, like other people,” he said, adding: “ I don’t know about inside the house, but outside—he must be rich.”