PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Former Khmer Rouge minister Ieng Sary, who was on trial for genocide and war crimes, died Thursday, March 14, the UN-backed court said, denying Cambodians a verdict over his role in the brutal regime.
The death of the former student radical, who as Khmer Rouge foreign minister was one of the regime’s few public faces, heightens fears the remaining elderly defendants may not live to see justice at the much-delayed tribunal.
“We can confirm that Ieng Sary died this morning after being hospitalized since March 4,” court spokesman Lars Olsen said, adding it was “regrettable we cannot finish the proceedings in the case”.
At 87 he was oldest of three former leaders on trial, and — along with “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, 86, and one-time head of state Khieu Samphan, 81 — denied charges including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
The charges against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan will not, however, be affected by his death, Olsen added.
Ieng Sary’s death was met with dismay by trial observers who want to see the regime’s top leaders held accountable for the crimes that saw a quarter of Cambodia’s population wiped out between 1975 and 1979.
“His death is no victory and it carries little value for the regime’s victims who patiently wait to see justice done. The court must move on,” said Youk Chhang, of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which researches atrocities by the hardline communist regime.
Born to a poor ethnic Khmer family in south Vietnam, the former foreign minister repeatedly denied knowledge of the mass executions that came to define the Khmer Rouge regime, and claimed he had no powers of arrest.
His wife Ieng Thirith, the regime’s former social affairs minister, was also supposed to be in the dock but was last year deemed unfit for trial after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Since the 2007 arrest of the couple at a luxury villa where they lived in Phnom Penh, Ieng Sary remained defiant, challenging the court to prove his culpability during the era of the “Killing Fields”, where large numbers of people were slaughtered and buried in mass graves.
Experts, however, say as the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister he oversaw the wholesale purging and murder of intellectuals, many of them taken from his ministry with his knowledge.
Progress at the court has been painfully slow, with the defendants frequently hospitalized or unfit to attend hearings.
Paid for by voluntary contributions from donor nations, the tribunal has also been beset by a funding shortage. A strike over unpaid wages by some Cambodian staff has paralyzed proceedings since March 6.
Heather Ryan, a trial monitor at the Open Society Justice Initiative, described Ieng Sary’s death as “an example of ‘justice delayed is justice denied'”, which would “leave Cambodians with a sense of frustration”.
Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population through starvation, overwork or execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia during their rule.
The court has so far settled just one case, sentencing former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to life in jail for overseeing the deaths of some 15,000 people. – Rappler.com
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