'First lady' of Khmer Rouge is judged 'unfit to stand trial'

Court's decision leaves survivors fearing genocide victims will go without justice

The "first lady" of the Khmer Rouge accused of involvement in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people is to escape prosecution after a court ruled that she is unfit to stand trial.

Cambodia's war crimes court said Ieng Thirith, who had served as the regime's social affairs minister, should be released from the proceedings as there was no prospect that the 80-year-old would be able to be tried "in the foreseeable future".

She is believed to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease or another degenerative condition.

While many had anticipated the court's decision, survivors of the Maoist-inspired regime and the relatives of those who perished between 1975-1979 expressed anguish that she was to be released.

Every year, they say, the chances of securing justice for the estimated two million people who were murdered, or else starved to death or died from disease during the regime's rule, diminishes.

"I cannot oppose the court, but I am not happy with its decision," Bou Meng, 71, one of just a handful of people to survive incarceration in Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng jail, told the Agence France-Presse. "The decision is mocking the souls of the dead, including my wife and children.

"It is hard to receive justice from the court now."

Ieng Thirith, who was also the sister-in-law of regime's leader, Pol Pot, who died in 1988, was one of just a few former senior members of the Khmer Rouge to be brought before the UN-backed genocide tribunal where she faced charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

The court said that the release of Ieng Thirith, expected to take place later today, did not represent a finding on her guilt or innocence and that the charges against her would not be removed.

The announcement about Ieng Thirith, who was arrested in 2007 and who had been refusing to co-operate with the tribunal, means that just three other former senior regime leaders remain on trial. Among them is her husband, the Khmer Rouge's former foreign minister, Ieng Sary.

Prosecutors had already conceded she was unlikely ever to be able to answer the charges because of her failing health and last month recommended her release.

Ieng Thirith's lawyer, Phat Pouv Seang, said the decision by the court was a "success" and said she expected her client to be released within 24 hours, unless there was an appeal against the court decision.

The court has already convicted Kaing Guek Eav – who headed Tuol Sleng jail where up to 14,000 people were killed – of similar charges. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison but may serve only 19.

In addition to the three still on trial – Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, 86, also known as Brother No 2, and the regime's former head of state, 81-year-old Khieu Samphan – prosecutors have claimed there is sufficient evidence to charge a number of other former regime members.

However, the Cambodian authorities led by the Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge, have long sought to hinder the court's work and the government has insisted there will be no further prosecutions.

Activists have said Hun Sen wants to protect former regime members who now hold senior positions within the country' political establishment.

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