The death of prominent Khmer Rouge figure, Ieng Sary, has added further pressure to the UN-backed Cambodian war crimes tribunal to find justice for long-suffering Cambodians, with just two living defendants who have been charged with crimes against humanity.
Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, died early Thursday after being hospitalized March 4, leaving behind Khieu Samphan, the former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea, and Nuon Chea, described as Pol Pot’s visionary, as the last living senior figures blamed for the deaths of about 2 million people during their brutal reign.
Charges have been discussed for less senior figures of the Khmer Rouge, but Ieng Sary’s death has heightened long-standing fears that those on trial would die of natural causes, denying Cambodians justice due to extended delays at the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC).
At 87, Ieng Sary was the oldest of the three leaders who were alive before his death. His wife Ieng Thirith, the first lady of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s minister for social affairs, had stood trial but was deemed mentally unfit to continue last year.
“Ieng Sary’s death is upsetting for me both as a victim of the regime and as a human rights activist, although it should come as no surprise given his age and ailing health,” said Ou Virak, President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“Given the fact that the other two defendants are also in their 80s, it should act as a wake-up call to all concerned – the Cambodian government, the UN, the international donors and the Tribunal itself – that these cases need to be expedited urgently so that justice can be served,” he said.
These four are rated as the most important because they are also the surviving members of Khmer Rouge committees that wrote and deployed government policies designed to turn the country into a rural utopia during their brutal reign from 1975 to 1979.
The policies stripped Cambodia of its cultural heritage and led to the deaths of a third of its population. Money was abandoned and cities emptied as millions were marched into the countryside to work in slave labor camps.
Efforts to form a tribunal stretch back to 1998 when Cambodia’s long-running civil wars were finally coming to an end. But the ECCC has been stymied by infighting among the Khmer and international staff and issues with the government, including late payments to local staff that prompted a strike.
“The whole future of the Tribunal is currently in limbo, and the possibility that hundreds of millions of dollars will have been wasted is now a very real threat,” Ou Virak said. “Most importantly, though, if all three die before their guilt or innocence can be determined, then the Cambodian people will quite understandably feel robbed of justice.”
His sentiments were echoed by Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Phnom Penh-based researcher on Cambodia, who said Ieng Sary’s death from natural causes would be difficult to accept for the victims of the Khmer Rouge who have waited so long for justice.
“But Ieng Sary should not be presumed guilty of the crimes alleged, as the proceedings against him were not completed and there has been no verdict,” he said, while calling for a speedy trial of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
To date, the tribunal has only made one conviction. In February of last year the Supreme Court Chambers rejected an appeal by Kaing Guek Eav (a.k.a. Duch), who was sentenced to life in prison for murder, torture and crimes against humanity, committed at the S21 Tuol Sleng detention and torture center that he ran.