THE former foreign minister in Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge government, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s, has died while standing trial for crimes against humanity.
Ieng Sary becomes the latest of the evil regime’s leading figures to elude justice.
Under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge unleashed a programme to return Cambodia to a pre-industrial “Year Zero”, with thousands of Cambodians being slaughtered in the regime’s “killing fields” as it attempted a return to a primitive agarian economy akin to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
A United Nations-backed tribunal was set up in Cambodia to try those responsible, but so far only one low-level prison chief has been found guilty and jailed. The court’s work has been hampered by funding problems and alleged interference by the Cambodian government.
Ieng Sary was one of three top Khmer leaders on trial in the court’s second case. The court announced his death yesterday, saying he had been in hospital since 4 March. He was 87.
“For the victims, this death narrows the scope of the trial and limits their search for truth and justice,” said Elisabeth Simonneau Fort, a lawyer who represents the victims at the court. “We can say that by death, Ieng Sary escapes justice.”
The remaining defendants are ex-propagandist Nuon Chea and ex-president Khieu Samphan. Many fear that only Khieu Samphan will live to hear his verdict as Nuon Chea has been in and out of hospital for years.
“The defendants are getting old, and the survivors are getting old,” said Bou Meng, 70, one of the few Cambodians to survive Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21, where up to 16,000 people were tortured and killed during the Khmer Rouge era. “The court needs to speed up its work. I have been waiting for justice for nearly 40 years. I never thought it would take so long.”
The case against a fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, wife of Ieng Sary, social affairs minister for the Khmer Rouge, was suspended last year after she was declared mentally unfit.
Prime minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, has warned that no more trials will be allowed. Many former members of the Khmer Rouge, including Hun Sen himself, hold important positions in the current government.
Ieng Sary studied in Paris with Pol Pot and held senior positions, including that of deputy prime minister in charge of foreign affairs, between 1975 and 1979 until Vietnam invaded and toppled the Khmer, sentencing both men to death in absentia.
They fled to jungle strongholds in western Cambodia. But Ieng Sary’s 1996 defection to the government, along with thousands of fighters, dealt a death blow to the movement. Pol Pot died two years later.
Though pardoned by former King Norodom Sihanouk, Ieng Sary was arrested in 2007 by the joint Cambodian-UN tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, and subsequently put on trial for genocide, crimes against humanity and breaches of the Geneva Convention.
The court, dogged by allegations of corruption, had spent £115 million by the end of last year and handed down just one conviction to former S-21 chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch”, jailed for life for the deaths of more than 14,000 people. Most were killed by pick-axe blows to the head to save bullets.