They are hardly the first couple to commit incomprehensible crimes in synchrony—Diane Marie Amann’s remarkable IntLawGrrls series on women at Nuremberg described the postwar trial of Ilse Koch, “wife of the Buchenwald Camp commander [Karl Otto Koch] who was complicit in the atrocities committed under his command.” But on November 12, 2007, Khmer Rouge couple Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith (above) became the first husband and wife to face charges together before a contemporary Nuremberg-type tribunal, this one in Cambodia, confirming speculation about the couple’s arrest reported in IntLawGrrls last July by Beth Van Schaack. (The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established another grim first by indicting a mother and son for their respective roles in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.)
The Cambodian couple were charged with crimes against humanity (Ieng Sary was also charged with war crimes) and were detained under the authority of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (logo below), a court that, as Jaya Ramji-Nogales and other IntLawGrrls have posted, was established by the United Nations and the Government of Cambodia to try surviving senior leaders and others who were most responsible for Khmer Rouge-era atrocities. Their arrest this week doubled the number of suspects detained by the ECCC.
Ieng Sary, known as “Brother Number 3” during the Khmer Rouge era, served as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the regime of the infamous “Brother Number 1”—Pol Pot, who died in 1998. (“Brother Number 2,” Nuon Chea, has already been detained by the ECCC.) Ieng Thirith (“Not Our Sister”) served as Minister of Social Affairs and Education during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Her sister, Khieu Ponnary, was married to Pol Pot.
How individuals come to commit crimes so horrific they transcend our capacity to comprehend is a perennial mystery, and the enigma of wholesale evil is somehow compounded when the alleged perpetrators are married to each other.
To meet Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith is to deepen the mystery. Twenty-three years ago this month, I spent a surrealistic weekend interviewing the two, along with noted constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, at the Khmer Rouge’s guerrilla headquarters in the Cambodian jungle. They were charming hosts: We asked about genocide, they offered us shrimp and champagne. In response to our persistent questions about Khmer Rouge atrocities, Ieng Sary finally acknowledged that the Khmer Rouge “owe the world an accounting” for the “unfortunate events of the 1970s.” But, Ieng Sary explained, with the Khmer Rouge still at war with the Cambodian government, they were rather busy. The accounting would have to wait. At long last, the wait may be over.