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Khmer Rouge minister appears in genocide tribunal

world Updated: May 21, 2008 15:05 IST

A former Khmer Rouge government minister, known as the "first lady," appeared for the first time Wednesday before Cambodia's UN-backed genocide tribunal.

Ieng Thirith, the former social affairs minister, was arrested last November along with her husband, Ieng Sary, the ex-foreign minister in the murderous regime that unleashed widespread horror in Cambodia.

Her lawyers are expected to appeal for her release, arguing that the 76-year-old is mentally ill. Court officials, however, have said doctors have deemed Ieng Thirith fit to stand trial.

She has rejected the charges against her as "100 percent false," claiming she was helping to repair hospitals and produce medicines during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule.

The court has said its suspects she is a flight risk and her detention is necessary to protect her against possible revenge attacks from Khmer Rouge victims, along with concerns about pressure on witnesses.

The intelligent daughter of a well-off judge studied literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she met her future husband in a ballroom in 1951.

After returning to Cambodia, the pair, along with Pol Pot and his wife Khieu Ponnary -- Ieng Thirith's older sister -- became the ideological centre of the nascent communist movement that decades later would sweep through Cambodia.

Up to two million people died from overwork, starvation, torture or execution under the Khmer Rouge as it sought to create an agrarian utopia. The joint Cambodia-UN tribunal was established in 2006 after nearly a decade of haggling to try former Khmer Rouge senior officials for genocide and crimes against humanity. The trials of five surviving leaders detained by the court are expected to begin later this year.

Khmer Rouge head Pol Pot died in 1998.