Ieng Thirith Will Not Be Released

Khmer Rouge minister to remain in custody pending treatment

Former Khmer Rouge Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith will not taste freedom for at least six more months, as Supreme Court Chamber judges ruled yesterday that she must remain in custody un­der medical supervision de­spite being unfit to stand trial.

Ieng Thirith, who suffers from dementia, was ordered released last month by trial judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, who said the court had no right to hold her now that legal proceedings against her have been stayed.

But in yesterday’s decision, the Supreme Court Chamber said Ieng Thirith cannot be freed until all possible measures to improve her health have been exhausted. They ordered the Trial Chamber to arrange for her to be treated in a “hospital or other appropriate facility” on the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s dime, and to reassess her fitness to stand trial after six months.

Geriatric and mental-health ex­perts who examined Ieng Thirith earlier this year concurred that her dementia was likely caused by Alzheimer’s disease—which cannot be definitively diagnosed without an autopsy—and there was little chance she would ever improve.

But they did suggest that Ieng Thirith be started on an Alzhei­mer’s drug called Donepezil, which ameliorates symptoms in about one-third of patients. The doctors also said Ieng Thirith might im­prove if she were given more cognitive stimulation and exercise than she was currently receiving in the court’s detention facility.

The Supreme Court Chamber said Ieng Thirith should be given Donepezil for at least six months and reassessed at the end of that peri­od. Until a suitable hospital or re­habilitation facility can be found, she will remain in custody at the tribunal.

“While long-term improvement might be impossible, the criminal process is only competent to concern itself with whether improvement is attainable for the period necessary to accommodate the sub­sequent criminal adjudication,” the judges wrote. “The Supreme Court accordingly holds that the Trial Chamber erred by failing to exhaust the concrete possibility that has a basis in expert recommendation to improve the mental health of the accused.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Chandra Nihal Jayasinghe said there was no basis to believe that Ieng Thirith could ever get well enough to stand trial, pointing out that even if her condition improved slightly under treatment, she would still be seriously incapacitated.

“The medical opinion is that her condition is permanent and will continue to degenerate with the passage of time, with only a remote chance of marginal and temporary improvement…. It would be an erosion of her rights to detain her in a hospital or any other facility on the hypothesis that her condition is likely to improve,” he wrote.

Anne Heindel, a legal adviser for the Documentation Center of Cam­­­bodia, said that keeping Ieng Thi­rith in custody for six more months was not onerous given the seriousness of her alleged crimes and the possibility, however slight, that her condition could improve.

“The law is a bit unclear in this area, because it is factually a bit of a first—there is only one case with precedent—and I think this follows that precedent in the sense of keeping someone under medical supervision until it can be determined whether they are permanently unfit,” she said.

Phat Pouv Seang, a lawyer for Ieng Thirith, declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)


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