Cambodia’s war crimes court has ordered that Ieng Thirith, the 80-year-old sister-in-law of brutal Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, should no longer face accusations of war crimes because she is seen to be unfit to stand trial.
The UN-backed tribunal said in a statement this week

Khmer Rouge First Lady

Khmer Rouge's 'First Lady' and Pol Pot's guerillas

that there was no prospect the accused woman could be tried in the foreseeable future.
Her release from what would have been penetrating questions about any role or support she gave to Pol Pot’s mass-murder regime from 1975 to 1979 came after health experts said she was suffering from a form of dementia and memory loss and her ‘cognitive impairment is likely irreversible.’
Yet the conclusion of experts working for the prosecution contrasted sharply with testimony from Ieng Thirith’s psychiatrist, Chak Thida, who has told the court that her patient did not have the symptoms of dementia.
Miss Thida said Ieng Thirith was a ‘polite and neat’ lady who could read French accurately, although she did experience ‘some loss in memory’ due to her age.
Ieng Thirith, who is married to former foreign minister Ieng Sary, was accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity for her role in ‘Brother Number One’ Pol Pot’s communist regime, during which an estimated two million Cambodians were killed.
The goal of the Khmer Rouge regime was to create a communist utopia through social engineering, and saw million of people forced out of their homes in cities and towns to work in fields in the countryside.
The country was re-named Democratic Kampuchea and during the four years of Khmer Rouge’s reign, Cambodians died of starvation and torture at the hands of brutal ‘re-education’ guards as they were forced to work in fields, or were tortured and executed in prison camps.
In a bid to make all Cambodians equal, the regime slaughtered intellectuals, professionals, foreigners and artists who were all seen as ‘enemies’ of Democratic Kampuchea.
Three elderly former regime leaders remain on trial: Former prime minister Nuon Chea, also known as ‘Brother Number Two’ , former head of state Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith’s husband Ieng Sary.
Although released, Ieng Tirith has been warned by the prosecution not to interfere in the investigation and to remain in the country.
As recently as last November judges announced that Ieng Tirith should be released, however that ruling was overturned on appeal the following month.
Medical experts working for the prosecution said her mental state had since declined – opinions that were not shared by her psychiatrist.
Pol Pot died in 1998 of a heart attack in a jungle hut at the age of 73 without ever being brought to trial.


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Rochom & me in 2007

In 2007 I travelled to northern Cambodia to meet a mysterious young woman, later nicknamed the ‘Jungle Girl’ after she had been captured naked on the fringe of a forest trying to steal food from a group of villagers.
Who was she?
A local policeman came forward to claim she was his long-lost daughter – the little girl, then aged 10, who had vanished while tending the family’s water buffalo. Rochom P’Ngieng, as his daughter was called, had been missing for 18 years. The policeman said the strange woman was definitely his daughter because there was a scar on her arm, a wound sustained as a child when she cut herself.
When I met Rochom in her family’s hut not far from the border with Vietnam, her long hair had been cut, she had been dressed and looked ‘normal’. But she couldn’t speak – and her father claimed that when she did talk it was almost like the chirping of an animal.
Here, then, are the latest developments – they are both curious and worrying. If the mystery woman is Rochom she would now be close to 30 years old.
According to her father, Sal Lou, the woman who had been making slow but sure progress over the past two years, having learned how to eat from a plate and wash herself, had now reverted to what he said was ‘monkey-like’ behaviour. She was making ‘cheep-cheep’ sounds and was half-walking, half-crawling around his modest hut in a small ‘like an ape’.
‘She is more wild now than when she was found two years ago,’ he says. ‘She’s gone back to the jungle in her mind.’
At first, he recalls, she was impossible to control. ‘Everybody around here called her the “half-animal girl” but she’s my daughter all the same and I love her.
‘She would hunch over with her hands almost touching the floor when she walked and she would make clicking and chirping sounds similar to a monkey. She shied away from strangers and tore at her clothes. For me and my family it was like trying to control an animal that had been living in the wild.’
But as the weeks went by, Sal Lou and his wife and family were pleased with her slow progress, even though he did not know what had happened to her during the lost years. To add to the mystery, when I met Rochom there were what appeared to be deep rope burns on her wrists, suggesting she had been tied up for a long period.
Now, despite the slow progress of the past two years, Sal fears he has lost his daughter again to the call of the jungle.
‘She stopped eating a few weeks ago and started to lose weight dramatically, so I took her to the nearest hospital, many miles away,’ he says. ‘She was beginning to tear her clothes off, just as she had at the beginning. She spent several days in the hospital, still not speaking and acting like a monkey with those animal-like sounds.
‘The hospital was doing her no good so we have brought her home. Now she is moving around all the time like a monkey and just last night she took off all her clothes and went to hide in the bathroom.
‘She was always trying to escape from the hospital. We had to hold her hand all the time, otherwise she would try to take off her clothes and run away.’
Dr Hing Phan Sokunthea, director of Ratanakkiri provincial hospital, confirms that Sal Lou had defied medical advice and taken the young woman out of the hospital. He says the woman has mental problems, which is not a surprising assessment of a person who behaves like a monkey.
Parts of the jungles of Cambodia are impenetrable and are said to be a haven for hill tribes who have shunned all contact with the outside world. Could Rochom have grown up with a lost tribe or even, as some have suggested, lived with a family of monkeys?
When I met the ‘Jungle Woman’ two years ago, I asked her through a Cambodian interpreter, then a Vietnamese speaker, if she wanted to go back to the jungle. She clearly did not understand me. She merely glanced at the open door of the hut, suggesting perhaps that the outside world was where she wanted to be, where she wanted to run…
I’d welcome your thoughts on this strange case.

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