A former Khmer Rouge leader on trial at a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh was admitted to the hospital Wednesday, according to a court official, becoming the second elderly defendant in the case to fall ill in four days.
Khieu Samphan, the 81-year-old former head of state for the ultra-Maoist regime, was hospitalized Wednesday with exhaustion, according to Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the tribunal is formally known.
“Khieu Samphan is tired and exhausted. So far, we don’t know what kind of sickness he is suffering from,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that doctors at the Cambodia-Russia Friendship Hospital— which was constructed to treat aging former Khmer Rouge defendants—had refused to elaborate on the defendant’s conditions.
Khieu Samphan had been diagnosed with high blood pressure during a previous medical examination.
Agence France-Presse quoted ECCC spokesman Lars Olsen as saying that the defendant had been rushed from his detention facility to the hospital with “weakness, fatigue and shortness of breath” and that he would remain there under observation while undergoing tests by doctors.
"We don't know how long he will be at the hospital," Olsen added.
Khieu Samphan’s laywer Kong Sam Onn told RFA’s Khmer Service that his client has had a history of respiratory and high blood pressure medical problems, but said he had not received any information about the current state of his client’s health.
Khieu Samphan’s sudden illness follows that of Khmer Rouge second-in-command and co-defendant Nuon Chea, who was admitted to hospital on Sunday.
Nuon Chea, 86, was diagnosed with “acute bronchitis” prompting judges at the court to suspend trial proceedings this week.
Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, along with the regime’s foreign minister Ieng Sary, face charges related to the deaths of up to two million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge rule from 1975-1979.
The three defendants deny charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Neth Pheaktra said the health condition of the former Khmer Rouge leaders would affect a trial process that has already suffered major delays, leading to concerns that the defendants will not live to see justice served.
According to court rules, defendants must participate in their hearings unless they waive their right to attend. If the defendants are unable to participate and have not waived their right to do so, the trial must be suspended until they can attend the proceedings.
Chum Mey, a former inmate of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, expressed concern that the ECCC would not be able to conclude its case against the former leaders if their health continues to decline.
He asked the government to speed up the trial process up and called on donor nations to provide the necessary funding for the court to proceed.
“I am worried because of the health of the aging former Khmer Rouge leaders,” he said.
“We can’t try those who are sick. If they die, the Khmer Rouge court will have been useless.”
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, also conveyed his apprehension over the speed of the case.
He called on the court to anticipate future obstacles and to move ahead with the trial, although he acknowledged that little could be done to deal with the health problems of the defendants.
“Only God can decide if something were to happen. That is their fate,” he said, adding that the ECCC has worked to provide the best possible health care for the aging former Khmer Rouge leaders.
The ECCC has been working for six years to deliver justice for the up to two million Cambodians who died of disease, exhaustion, starvation, and execution under the Khmer Rouge government.
But after spending more than U.S. $150 million, the tribunal has handed down only one sentence and has been mired in allegations of corruption and interference.
In its only conviction, the ECCC sentenced Kaing Guek Eav to life imprisonment last February for overseeing Tuol Sleng prison where as many as 16,000 men, women, and children are believed to have been brutalized before being sent to their deaths.
Reported by Keo Nimol and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.