Cambodia’s war crimes court ordered the release on Thursday of Ieng Thirith, the “First Lady” of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, saying she was unfit to stand trial.
The UN-backed tribunal said there is “no prospect that the accused can stand trial in the foreseeable future”, handing a bitter blow to survivors of the 1975-79 regime, which is blamed for the deaths of up to two million people.
Ieng Thirith, 80, ex-social affairs minister and the sister-in-law of regime leader Pol Pot, was one of only a handful of people ever brought before a court for atrocities during the Khmer Rouge era.
The accused “suffers from a progressive, degenerative illness (likely Alzheimer’s disease)”, the court statement read, adding “that she remains unfit to stand trial”.
She was accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity and the court said her impending release “is not a finding on the guilt or innocence” nor does it withdraw the charges against her.
Three other ageing top former regime leaders – including her husband, former foreign minister Ieng Sary – remain on trial.
The case, the tribunal’s second and most important, is seen as vital to healing wounds in the still-traumatised nation, but campaigners have voiced dismay at the slow progress of proceedings given the advanced age of the defendants.
Prosecutors had already conceded Ieng Thirith was unlikely to ever answer the charges because of her failing health.
“This is a success for our team,” her Cambodian lawyer Phat Pouv Seang told reporters, adding Ieng Thirith would be released within 24 hours, barring an appeal against the court decision.
The prosecution has already conceded that her ill health meant a trial was unlikely and last month recommended her release.
A court spokesman confirmed she was set to be freed on Friday.
The court said it recognised that the extent of her illness meant she would be incapable of remembering or adhering to any conditions, but stipulated that she should not interfere in the case in any way and remains in Cambodia.
Khmer Rouge victims met the decision with dismay.
“I cannot oppose the court, but I am not happy with its decision,” said Bou Meng, 71, one of only a handful of people to survive incarceration in Tuol Sleng, one of the regime’s notorious torture prisons.
“It is hard to receive justice from the court now.”
Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the hardline communist movement wiped out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, forced labour and execution, in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia.
Co-defendants Nuon Chea, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan deny charges including war crimes and genocide.
Owing to fears that not all the suspects will live to see a verdict, the court has split their complex case into several smaller trials, starting with the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and related crimes against humanity.
The trials have been dogged by funding problems and accusations of political interference from Cambodia’s current government, which counts many former Khmer Rouge figures within its ranks.