PHNOM PEHN: Hundreds of former Khmer Rouge cadres Monday attended the funeral of the one-time “first lady” of the murderous Cambodian regime, but victims expressed sadness she would now escape justice.
Between 200-300 people attended religious rites and prayers for Ieng Thirith, who was charged but never fully prosecuted for crimes against humanity by a UN-backed tribunal. She died on Saturday aged 83.
Her trial in 2012 for genocide and crimes against humanity was suspended due to ill health.
The body was cremated late Monday in Pailin, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold on the Thai border where many regime leaders settled after they were ousted by a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979.
Ieng Thirith was among only a handful of people ever brought to court over atrocities during the Khmer Rouge era.
The suspension of her trial was a bitter blow to many who survived the regime, which killed up to two million people by starvation, overwork or outright execution.
She had been held under judicial supervision from the suspension of her trial until her death, and the charges against her were never dropped.
“People still respect and love her,” Sok Nguon, 65, a former Khmer Rouge fighter attending the funeral, told AFP by telephone.
“We came to see her off for the final time. I pray for her to be freed from any sins.”
Ieng Thirith, the sister-in-law of late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, served as the regime’s social affairs minister alongside her husband, then-foreign minister Ieng Sary.
The couple, along with Pol Pot and his wife Khieu Ponnary, became the ideological centre of an ultra-Maoist movement that unleashed unprecedented destruction in the late 1970s.
Ieng Sary, with whom she had four children, died in 2013 aged 87 before a verdict was delivered in his trial.
Her death dismayed some victims of a regime which between 1975-79 wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population in an attempt to create a communist agrarian utopia.
“During the Pol Pot regime, there were no funerals for those who died, but there is a funeral for her — this is another injustice,” said Norng Chan Phal, 46, who lost his parents at Phnom Penh’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison.
“Now she has escaped from her crimes.”
Family ties helped Ieng Thirith reach the upper echelons of power in a murderous totalitarian regime that tore children from parents and husbands from wives and emptied cities by driving residents into the countryside.
A small number of top Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted, including “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, 88, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 83.
The pair are also undergoing a second trial at the UN-backed tribunal for genocide, centred on the killing of ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim minorities, forced marriage and rape.
“Brother Number One” Pol Pot died in 1998 without ever facing justice.
In March the court charged three more former Khmer Rouge members with crimes against humanity, ignoring warnings by strongman Cambodian premier Hun Sen — a mid-ranking regime cadre before he defected — that further prosecutions risked reigniting conflict.