Updated at 3:50 p.m. EST on 2013-03-14
Ieng Sary, the ailing co-founder of the brutal Khmer Rouge movement standing trial for genocide and war crimes, died on Thursday, a U.N. tribunal hearing the case said, underscoring the need for a speedy hearing of similar charges against two other elderly defendants.
The 87-year-old foreign minister in the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror from 1975 to 1979 had been hospitalized several times since being detained more than five years ago by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) tasked with seeking justice for crimes committed during that era.
"Mr. Ieng died at the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital this morning after having been hospitalized since 4 March 2013," an ECCC statement said.
It said that he died just before an assessment was to have been made of his fitness to stand trial by local and international medical experts scheduled for later this month.
A court document issued later said that Ieng Sary's death "terminated all criminal and civil cases" against him, but that charges against two other senior Khmer Rouge figures, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, will not be affected.
Ieng Sary was the oldest of the trio on trial, and—along with "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 86, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81—had denied charges leveled against him of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.
Ieng Sary's wife Ieng Thirith, the regime's former social affairs minister, was last year deemed unfit for trial after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Ieng Sary’s body was transported by ambulance from the hospital in Phnom Penh to his home in the Malai district of Banteay Meanchey province under escort of security personnel and Buddhist monks.
The motorcade arrived at around 10:30 p.m. on Thursday and was met by family members who had already gathered for his funeral. According to custom, his body will lie in repose for seven days and then be cremated in front of his home.
Ieng Sary’s newphew Keo Mony, who is a former Khmer Rouge soldier, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he was saddened by his uncle’s death.
“I am sad at losing him,” he said, adding that local villagers loved Ieng Sary and had viewed him as a “leader who protected the country from foreign invasion.”
Keo Mony refused to comment on Ieng Sary's trial at the ECCC.
A police officer at the funeral named Mao Savath called Ieng Sary a “responsible leader” who was “not a dictator” and praised him for promoting national reconciliation after he defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1996 and was given a royal pardon.
“I know people say he was a killer, but he seemed to be a good man to me,” he said.
But others in the province were less forgiving of the former Khmer Rouge leader.
A villager named Pen Vuthy said he is not sad to see Ieng Sary dead, but was upset that he had not provided the court with more information about what had occurred during his time in power.
Another villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Ieng Sary’s death would hinder the war tribunal.
“I am very sad. We don’t have enough evidence yet. As a Cambodian, I am sad at losing him,” he said.
Loss of a witness
Ieng Sary's death "represents a loss of a witness of the Khmer Rouge regime who was personally involved in the crimes and atrocities committed during the Democratic Kampuchea era between 1975 and 1979 as described in the Closing Order of the tribunal’s Co-Investigating Judges," said a coalition of Cambodian rights groups.
"The loss will not only impact on the Khmer Rouge historical record, it will also have a negative impact on the efforts to seek justice and closure for many civil parties, victims and ordinary Cambodians who have been personally participating in the ECCC process in their demand for justice against the accused," said the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of 21 members of nongovernmental groups.
The trial was temporarily halted due to health concerns of each of the accused from time to time, and more recently a funding shortage issue which then also led to strike actions by many national staff of the ECCC.
CHRAC called on the ECCC and its stakeholders, particularly the Cambodian government and the United Nations, to "fulfill their obligation immediately and the effort and mission to seek justice should not fail due to the unnecessary political, financial and procedural obstacles."
Otherwise, they could see the death of the other elderly accused in the middle of the proceedings, the statement said.
Led by the notorious Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians through starvation, overwork, or execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
The ECCC has so far completed 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.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Joshua Lipes.