Ieng Thirith, 76, asked Khmer Rouge tribunal judges to release her on bail Wednesday, pending her trial on charges of crimes against humanity at the UN-backed court.
Prosecutors allege that Ieng Thirith was responsible for crimes including murder, imprisonment and persecution in her role as the Khmer Rouge’s Minister of Social Action. They also say they have evidence to suggest she was directly involved in the murder of hundreds of Ministry of Social Affairs staff members at S-21 prison.
Ieng Thirith maintains those charges are “100 percent false.” She has told judges that “she did nothing other than helping the population and patients, particularly by organizing repairs to damaged hospitals and the fabrication of medication,” according to court documents.
She was arrested at her spacious Phnom Penh villa Nov 12, along with her husband, former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, who is also detained at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The defense pleaded for Ieng Thirith’s release on bail, arguing that she has had ample opportunity to flee Cambodia in the past but never has.
Ieng Thirith traveled to Thailand frequently for medical checkups and always returned, said Diana Ellis, her international defense lawyer. The defense also said the tribunal’s Defense Support Section had informed Ieng Thirith of her imminent arrest. Even then, she did not flee.
Ellis said Ieng Thirith does not have a house in Cuba, and that she is, per an investigation by the court’s Defense Support Section, financially “indigent and reliant on her family.” The villa in Phnom Penh where she and her husband have lived for 10 years belongs to their daughter, she added.
Phat Pouv Seang, Ieng Thirith’s Cambodian defense attorney, said the court must respect “a presumption of liberty.” Judges, according to the defense, have offered no concrete evidence that Ieng Thirith’s release would undermine public order, put her personal safety at risk or undermine the investigation by allowing for witness intimidation—all reasons for detention at the ECCC.
Vincent de Wilde, a senior assistant prosecutor appearing on behalf of Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit, said Ieng Thirith was—along with her husband, her sister Khieu Ponnary, and her one-time brother-in-law, Pol Pot—a “core member” of the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary elite.
This position, he said, gave her a sense of impunity, which she believed would never end.
“Fortunately this is no longer so,” de Wilde said.
Prosecutors argued that Ieng Thirith has ample financial means and connections to flee the country and set up another life in one of the many countries she has visited, Cuba and North Korea, among them.
De Wilde said it was “highly disturbing” that she asked for and was granted a Thai visa on the eve of her November arrest.
Prosecutors also argued that as one of the first Khmer women to rise to a position of social prominence, Ieng Thirith still enjoys substantial prestige and popularity, especially among the “Democratic Kampuchea faithful” in Malai and Pailin.
Her son, Ieng Vuth, is a deputy governor of Pailin, and the municipality’s governor, Y Chhien, is close to the family, de Wilde said.
“Those are two major figures who are clearly hostile to the ECCC,” de Wilde said, adding that should Ieng Thirith be released, the family power base in and around Pailin could be mobilized to help her flee or silence witnesses.
The few surviving members of the Khmer Rouge-era Ministry of Social Affairs, whose testimony is crucial to link her to S-21 killings, have told the court they are afraid of her, he said.
De Wilde added that Ieng Thirith’s 1999 letter attacking Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, was “arrogant,” “ruthless,” and “greedy for money,” among other things; and that her 2003 comments against Mei Makk, now a deputy governor of Pailin, who had encouraged Khmer Rouge prosecutions, were further proof of her readiness to intimidate witnesses.
Youk Chhang said by phone Wednesday that the letter was a “clear threat to me as a victim.”
Mei Makk could not be reached for comment, but his wife, Youn Pea, 48, said she did not think Ieng Thirith could threaten witnesses.
Ieng Vuth said he was too busy to talk with a reporter.
Civil parties at the hearing threw their support behind the prosecutors. Civil party lawyer Hong Kim Sourn said that if Ieng Thirith were released now, “victims might feel they can’t trust the ECCC.”
At the start of the hearing, Ieng Thirith stood to address the Pre-Trial Chamber judges, identifying her parents, the location of her previous residence and her former occupation (“English professor”), but she seemed to stumble over how many children she has.
“Four, three, I forgot,” she said, adding a moment later: “Four children. I almost forgot.”
She cut a grandmotherly figure, with large spectacles, thinning hair gone grey on top, and a long, pale yellow sweater. She shuffled out of the courtroom between sessions, a small lavender purse clutched beneath her arm. During the afternoon session, she appeared to doze.
The defense have argued that Ieng Thirith suffers from chronic mental and physical illness, though they have not detailed publicly what precisely she suffers from. They allege that her health is too frail for her to flee and that her prolonged detention “could lead to complications.”
Prosecutors say there’s no evidence to support those contentions, and note that a promised 200-page medical report on her mental condition has never been delivered by the defense. Cambodian Co-Deputy Prosecutor Yet Chakriya, who appeared on behalf of Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang, added that the court’s 24-hour on-site medical care was sufficient to meet her needs.
At 6 pm, Ieng Thirith told judges the “accusations” against her had angered her and caused her blood pressure to rise, and asked judges to let her rest, tribunal Public Affairs Officer Reach Sambath said.
“‘Please find justice for me.’ Those were her last words,” Reach Sambath said.
The hearing concluded at 6:30 pm. No date has been set for the court to announce its decision.