Expert’s report puts her trial in jeopardy
Former Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith is suffering from “moderately severe dementia” that is likely due to Alzheimer’s disease, a medical expert said yesterday at a Khmer Rouge tribunal hearing on the defendants’ health.
The revelation makes it virtually impossible that Ieng Thirith, 79, will stand trial for genocide and war crimes in the court’s showpiece Case 002, which is not expected to enter its evidence-hearing phase until next year.
John Campbell, a New Zealand-based professor of geriatric medicine who examined three of the court’s defendants, told the court yesterday that Ieng Thirith’s “significant cognitive impairment” rendered her unable to participate meaningfully in the trial process.
Yesterday’s hearings were devoted to discussing Brother Number Two Nuon Chea’s and Ieng Thirith’s fitness to stand trial, but focused largely on the latter’s mental state, which has been in decline for at least two years.
When examined by Dr Campbell in April, she was unable to draw a clock face displaying the correct time or reproduce a simple sequence of letters and numbers. He also noted her inability to focus and her extremely poor memory of key people and events in her life, including her children.
“In my report, I indicate I feel the most likely underlying problem is an Alzheimer’s-type dementia,” Dr Campbell said.
If Ieng Thirith were to stand trial, Dr Campbell added, “she would have difficulty recalling the events under question, she would have difficulty instructing her defense, and also have difficulty concentrating during the process and responding during the court proceedings.”
Dr Campbell said he based his assessment on a number of factors, including Ieng Thirith’s medical records, interviews with her and her caretakers, and tests he administered during his examination in April.
He cautioned that Ieng Thirith’s cognitive impairment could be exacerbated by stress and a lack of mental stimulation, as well as three psychotropic medications she had been taking. Still, while doctors have taken her off two of the drugs and are tapering doses of a third, her condition had not improved as of last week, when Dr Campbell conducted a follow-up exam.
Both Nuon Chea and Ieng Thirith are contesting their fitness to stand trial, but Dr Campbell recommended further testing only for Ieng Thirith. He said Nuon Chea suffers from heart disease but scored perfectly on a standardized test of cognitive function.
Nuon Chea and his lawyers took exception to Dr Campbell’s assessment, insisting that the defendant was seriously impaired by an inability to concentrate, and requesting another expert opinion.
Before asking to be excused because he was feeling unwell, Nuon Chea removed his trademark sunglasses to recite a litany of his physical and mental ailments.
“I have problems concentrating,” he said, “and I wish to make this clear to the court as follows: I can remain seated for about one hour and a half only. After that, remaining sitting for long will affect my eyesight, and my head will become very heavy, and it also affects the heartbeats of my heart and my blood pressure increases and my back is aching.”
Under no circumstances, Nuon Chea said, could he pay attention to his trial for more than 90 minutes at a time, even if he were to retire to the specially built holding cells in the court’s basement, which are equipped with beds and TV screens.
His lawyers went on to make a minute examination of Dr Campbell’s qualifications, and implied that he had not properly assessed Nuon Chea’s powers of concentration.
But the center of the attention yesterday was the silent Ieng Thirith, dressed in a red sweater, who dozed off several times and did not appear to be paying attention. Halfway through the hearing, she retired to her holding cell.
Her British lawyer, Diana Ellis, attempted several times to emphasize her client’s mental removal from proceedings and asked permission for her to return to the court’s detention facility.
While in the holding cell, Ms Ellis said, Ieng Thirith “doesn’t follow what is actually happening in the courtroom. The [TV] screen is on, she sees it, but from all the information that we have gleaned from our own observation and from others, it appears that…she is not able to take in, in fact, who the personalities are that she is observing and what is happening in this courtroom.”
Visitors to the tribunal yesterday were more skeptical of the defendants’ claims of unfitness—and downright annoyed by Nuon Chea’s complaints over his back pain.
“It didn’t matter how old you were—the Khmer Rouge leaders and cadre didn’t care and treated humans of all ages badly,” said Nget San, 60, from Takeo province.
“I never heard those Khmer Rouge soldiers say anyone was too old to work. It’s ridiculous when these former senior Khmer Rouge leaders who just sit and listen in this hearing today are complaining of hurting hips and back from lengthy sitting.”
Soum Rithy, 58, a former prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, felt that Nuon Chea’s professed ill health was a subterfuge to slow down the trial process.
“Even if there were 10 experts, they could not cure him because his illness is not real,” he said. “If [Ieng Thirith] really has Alzheimer’s disease, it proves that is her karma for doing a lot of bad things in her life,” he added.
But Chan Ngom, 76, a local government official from Kompong Chhnang province, had more sympathy for the accused.
“Based on my own experiences as an old person, these accused are not fit to stand trial,” he said. “Old people like Nuon Chea and Ieng Thirith are like fragile glasses that can easily be broken, even holding them in your hand softly.”