Unassisted by her international defense lawyer Tuesday, former Khmer Rouge Minister of Social Action Ieng Thirith rose to her feet in open court, accusing former Brother Number Two Nuon Chea of murdering students returning from abroad and warning her accusers that they risked eternal damnation.
Alternately speaking English and Khmer, the 76-year-old crimes against humanity suspect said she was an innocent patriot of good breeding and had been waiting in detention for her chance to tell how she had been unjustly charged and held by the court.
Her remarks were immediately followed by prosecution arguments that Ieng Thirith was an unruly presence in the court and had sought to intimidate victims and prosecutors, which was evidence, they said, that she should not be released on bail.
“Don’t accuse me of murder, otherwise you will be cursed to the seventh level of hell,” Ieng Thirith said in remarks that lasted 20 minutes. “I’m sorry if I am extreme, and I have never committed any wrongdoings, and I have never been a murderer,” she said.
Tuesday’s hearing by the Pre-Trial Chamber was to consider granting bail to Ieng Thirith in her second year of detention by the tribunal, which arrested her in Phnom Penh in November 2007 along with her husband, former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary. She was previously refused bail in July.
Wearing a green scarf, her gray hair newly died black, Ieng Thirith, who studied Shakespeare in France, told the court the blame lay with Nuon Chea, once the communist party’s deputy secretary.
“I had nothing to do with Nuon Chea, although I knew what he has done and I knew he killed people. I knew this. I know this. I know how many people died and who killed those people. I am knowledgeable,” she said.
“When my students…learned how to produce medicines… Nuon Chea ordered them to be arrested under [then S-21 prison chief] Kaing Guek Eav’s supervision and I would like to make it clear that Nuon Chea killed all my students, and instead I was accused wrongly.”
Ieng Thirith struggled to recall the name of another of the “real murderers.”
“Especially the guy who killed people, what is his name? The guy who kills everybody and then he was detained? I am forget him. The guy who is under detention and then who killed people,” she said, adding that she came from an upstanding family of schoolteachers.
“This is what I have to tell you because you don’t know, because you don’t know, because I want you to know the truth. I want you all to know the truth. There is no need to spend time for nothing,” she said in English. “I do everything for my motherland. You must know people. Everyone said this. Everyone said this. No. You must know people.”
Son Arun, Cambodian lawyer for Nuon Chea, said Tuesday he had no comment on Ieng Thirith’s accusations against his client.
“It’s not the right time yet to answer her,” he said.
Charging that investigators had uncovered no new evidence since her arrest, Ieng Thirith’s defense lawyers in December appealed against a November order by judicial investigators who extended her detention into a second year.
Cambodian defense lawyer Phat Pouv Seang told the court’s Pre-Trial Chamber on Tuesday that investigators had done no more than collect evidence that Ieng Thirith was Khmer Rouge minister of social action.
“Such evidence was placed on the case file prior to her arrest and no other significant evidence has been added to the case file during the period of her detention from November 2007 to the present time,” he said. “In that time, they have failed to produce any evidence which directly links the charged person to the crimes committed during the relevant time.”
However, international Deputy Co-Prosecutor Vincent de Wilde d’Estmael said the court had comprehensive evidence that Ieng Thirith, whom he called “the first lady of the Khmer Rouge,” had systematically sent ministry workers to their deaths at S-21.
“The record contains sufficient, irrefutable evidence in this regard concerning the role of the charged person in the arrest of her subordinates and their transfer to S-21, and in the monitoring of the confessions obtained under torture in S-21,” de Wilde d’Estmael said, adding that Ieng Thirith’s behavior should rule her out for bail.
At a closed hearing in May, Ieng Thirith had behaved in a manner “aggressive to say the least,” shouting at prosecutors and victims and receiving a warning from judges, de Wilde d’Estmael said.
“These repeated interruptions… show that the charged person cannot bear to be placed face-to-face with her past and the ignoble crimes committed by the regime, to whose most radical cause she belonged. She was a first lady whose influence extended far beyond her official titles and functions,” he added. “It was not a spontaneous reaction in the face of the unbearable truth of her alleged participation in the crimes. This has always been her attitude.”
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Phat Pouv Seang said his client’s sense of injustice had prompted her to speak out.
“I think she was so angry that she could not really control her emotions, and I did tell her that [it] is not yet time for her to address the court,” he said, adding that British co-counsel Diana Ellis had been unable to book a flight to Cambodia for the hearing.
“She is in England,” he said. “I’m very sad that she is not here with us.”
Ellis did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.