Ieng Thirith, sister-in-law of late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, dies in Cambodia

Former Khmer Rouge minister Ieng Thirith in Phnom Penh in this Feb 24, 2009 file photo.
Former Khmer Rouge minister Ieng Thirith in Phnom Penh in this Feb 24, 2009 file photo. PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - The former “first lady” of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime died on Saturday, according to a UN-backed tribunal, without victims ever seeing her face trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Ieng Thirith, a French-educated revolutionary who was 83 when she died, was one of the few women in the leadership of the communist movement behind the horrors of the “Killing Fields” era.

She was one of just a handful of suspects charged by Cambodia’s UN-backed war crimes court, but was freed in 2012 when the case against her was suspended after the court ruled she was unfit to stand trial due to progressive dementia.

Family ties helped her reach the upper echelons of power in a murderous totalitarian regime that tore children from parents and husbands from wives.

The sister-in-law of late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, she served as the regime’s social affairs minister alongside her husband, former foreign minister Ieng Sary.

At one point this year, she had been hospitalised in Thailand with heart, bladder and lung problems.

In the end, she passed away in a former Khmer Rouge stronghold on the border with Thailand where many regime leaders settled after they were ousted by the Vietnamese.

“The accused passed away at approximately 10.30 am (0330 GMT) on 22 August in Pailin, Cambodia,” the UN-backed tribunal said in a statement.

“She was released under a regime of judicial supervision. She remained under judicial supervision until her death,” the statement from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) added.


The suspension of the case against her was a bitter blow to many who survived the regime, blamed for the deaths of up to two million people.

The charges against her of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity were never dropped, however.

The Khmer Rouge wiped out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, forced labour and execution, in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia.

Her husband Ieng Sary died in 2013, aged 87, before a verdict was delivered in his trial.

“Ieng Thirith was not a passive individual who became linked to the Khmer Rouge solely through her status as Ieng Sary’s wife and Pol Pot’s sister-in-law,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia which researches the atrocities.

“She was an influential party member who wielded nationwide power as the regime’s minister of social affairs.

“Justice should not be buried with the death of criminals.”

Born Khieu Thirith, the daughter of a well off judge, she recounted earlier that she was initiated into politics by her future husband when they were classmates at high school in Phnom Penh, according to court documents.

She attended university in Paris where she majored in Shakespearean studies and became the first Cambodian to gain a degree in English literature.

It is also where she married Ieng Sary, with whom she had four children.


The glamour of Paris soon gave way to revolutionary yearnings with Ieng Sary’s increasing involvement in radical Marxism.

After returning to Cambodia in 1957 with her husband, she worked as a professor before opening an English school.

By the mid-1960s, she was devoting herself entirely to her revolutionary activities with her husband, operating from the Cambodian jungles along the border with Vietnam.

The couple, along with Pol Pot and his wife Khieu Ponnary, would become the ideological centre of a nascent communist movement that unleashed unprecedented destruction in the late 1970s.

She was not a member of the regime’s powerful standing committee but did sit on its council of ministers, according to court documents.

As social affairs minister, she oversaw the regime’s tight control of medicine supplies.

“Ieng Thirith was personally and directly involved in denying Cambodians even the most basic of healthcare during the regime’s years in power,” said Youk Chhang.

She ordered purges of suspected traitors in her ministry who were sent to re-education camps, and was aware of the regime’s killing of perceived enemies, according to court documents.

She allegedly participated in the regime’s regulation of marriage including its orchestration of mass forced marriages.

Ieng Thirith remained a staunch defender of the Khmer Rouge long after the regime’s demise in the 1990s.

She was arrested in 2007, along with her husband, and refused to cooperate with the court, consistently denying responsibility for the crimes committed during the regime’s four-year rule.

In an outburst in court in 2009, she told her accusers they would be “cursed to the seventh circle of hell”.

“I don’t know why a good person is accused of such crimes and I have suffered a great deal and I cannot really be patient because I have been wrongly accused,” she said.