PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal announced Wednesday that it has dropped crimes against humanity charges against a former lower-ranking Khmer Rouge official, saying she was not high enough in the regime's leadership hierarchy.
Prosecutors in 2015 had charged Im Chaem, a district chief during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 reign, with crimes against humanity including murder, extermination and enslavement.
An announcement by the U.N.-assisted tribunal said the investigating judges had dropped all charges in the case against Im Chaem, now in her early 70s, because she was neither a senior leader of the Khmer Rouge nor one of the most responsible officials.
The brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge are blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians from execution, starvation and inadequate medical care.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has long insisted that the tribunal's targets should not be expanded beyond the Khmer Rouge's top leaders, threatening to otherwise shut down the tribunal. He has repeatedly said that if the tribunal targets more defendants, it could incite former Khmer Rouge members to start a civil war. Few people share his belief, since the Khmer Rouge became a spent force two decades ago.
Hun Sen himself was a mid-level commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People's Party share similar backgrounds. He helped cement his political control by making alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.
The tribunal prosecutors had to charge Im Chaem in absentia, because Cambodian police refused to take her into detention.
Several cases against middle-ranking Khmer Rouge members are still pending.
The tribunal has already convicted two high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, Khieu Samphan, the 85-year-old Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, the 90-year-old right-hand man to the communist group's late top leader, Pol Pot. Also convicted was the head of its prison system, who ran a torture center in Phnom Penh.
As a district chief in the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey, Im Chaem allegedly ran a forced labor camp to construct an irrigation project, and in that position allegedly was responsible for the deaths of possibly thousands of laborers.