Ieng Thirith has been described as the "First Lady" of the Khmer Rouge
Former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea was arrested in 2007
PHNOM PENH — Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court said on Thursday it had rejected a request to release three top Khmer Rouge leaders from custody ahead of their genocide trial.
Judges said the continued detention of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan and ex-social affairs minister Ieng Thirith was necessary to prevent them from fleeing.
They face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and related crimes under Cambodian laws in connection with the deaths of up to two million people between 1975 and 1979 from starvation, overwork and execution.
"The Trial Chamber rejects the applications for release," a statement from the court said, adding that the three "shall remain in detention until the Chamber's judgement is handed down".
Defence lawyers, who can appeal the decision, argued that there was no legal basis to keep their elderly clients locked up at a public hearing in January.
The three suspects made a rare joint appearance in court last month during which Nuon Chea suffered a dizzy spell and had to leave early -- underscoring fears that not all the defendants, aged 78 to 85, will live to see a verdict.
A fourth accused, Ieng Sary, the regime's former foreign minister and Ieng Thirith's husband, is facing similar charges but did not seek release.
His lawyers recently requested half-day trial sessions, claiming Ieng Sary was too ill to spend full days in court.
All four defendants have been detained since they were arrested in 2007.
The trial, the tribunal's second, is due to start in the first half of 2011 and is expected to be a lengthy and complex one with all four disputing the charges against them.
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Marxist Khmer Rouge emptied cities in the late 1970s in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
Only one senior member of the feared regime has been brought to justice so far.
Former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was convicted in July for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of around 15,000 men, women and children.
The court -- which does not have the power to impose the death penalty -- handed Duch a 30-year jail term but he could walk free in 19 years given time already served.
Both Duch, 68, and the prosecution have appealed against the sentence.
Hearings for those appeals are scheduled to take place in the last week of March.