Former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea
Ieng Thirith has been described as the "First Lady" of the Khmer Rouge
Ex-Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch was jailed for his role in the atrocities committed in the late 1970s
By Suy Se (AFP)
PHNOM PENH — Three top Khmer Rouge leaders made a rare joint appearance before Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court on Monday to seek release from custody while they await trial for genocide.
"Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea and ex-social affairs minister Ieng Thirith looked frail as they sat in the courtroom with former head of state Khieu Samphan, underscoring fears that not all the defendants, aged 78 to 85, will live to see a verdict.
Along with a fourth accused 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.
Lawyers for the three called for their "immediate release", claiming their continued detention was illegal because the defendants had not been brought to trial four months after their indictments were issued.
While the accused are not seeking to have the charges dropped, acting co-lawyer Jasper Pauw said "there are no conceivable reasons to keep Nuon Chea in custody", in comments echoed by the other two defence teams.
A pale-looking Ieng Thirith, sometimes described as the "First Lady" of the Khmer Rouge, left the courtroom almost as soon as proceedings began, referring to a written statement instead and waiving her right to attend the hearing.
Nuon Chea -- who wore sunglasses to protect his eyes from the light -- suffered a dizzy spell early on and was sent back to the court's detention facility on medical advice.
Khieu Samphan was the only defendant to remain in court for the duration of the hearing. "Please abide by the law," he told the court in his sole statement.
Absent from the session was fellow accused Ieng Sary, the regime's former foreign minister and Ieng Thirith's husband, who did not seek release at the hearing. His lawyers recently requested half-day trial sessions, claiming their client was too ill to spend full days in court.
All four defendants have been detained since they were arrested in 2007.
The co-prosecutors dismissed the defence lawyers' arguments, using a different interpretation of the rules on provisional detention and its time limits.
They also said the defendants should remain locked up because they may try to escape the country and could exert pressure on witnesses if freed.
"The passage of time has not diminished the impact of these crimes," said co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley.
A ruling on the accused's request is expected in mid-February, though observers believe the accused are unlikely to go free as releasing them could cause an uproar in Cambodia.
"The court must not release them because they abused the people so much," 60-year-old farmer Chab Chhean, who lost 12 relatives under the regime, said outside the court.
The upcoming trial, the tribunal's second, is due to start in the first half of this year and is expected to be a lengthy and complex one with all four former leaders disputing the charges against them.
It follows the landmark July conviction of former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, 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.
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime emptied cities in the late 1970s in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
On the Net:
Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC): http://www.eccc.gov.kh/english