A former Khmer Rouge military leader considered one of Cambodia's most brutal killers has died after weeks in a hospital in the country's capital. Ta Mok was expected to face a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal for his part in the country's genocide in the 1970s. The former fighter's death is a blow to a legal process seeking justice for nearly two million victims.
Ta Mok died early Friday morning in a Phnom Penh hospital after slipping in and out of a coma for the past week. He had been detained in a military prison since 1999, but was transferred to the hospital earlier this month with heart, lung, and respiratory problems. He was reported to be 80 years old.
Sometimes called "The Butcher" for his bloody killing sprees, Ta Mok was expected to be a prominent defendant in planned trials of former high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. He was the last leader of the ultra-Maoist movement before it broke apart in 1998, and one of only two Khmer Rouge officials in detention awaiting trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
U.N. and Cambodian prosecutors have begun collecting evidence to try former Khmer Rouge leaders in hearings set to begin next year. But human rights groups say Ta Mok's death has dealt the process a blow.
Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian rights group Licadho, says Ta Mok held valuable details about the Khmer Rouge.
"When he was arrested seven years ago, he said that he will give lots of information concerning that period," she said. "So now we are going to lose, we lose a witness, very important witness."
The Khmer Rouge waged a campaign to purge Cambodia of its intellectual class from 1975 to 1979, to create an agrarian society with no banking system, religion or foreign influence.
They carried out their plan through mass executions and forced labor, until Vietnamese forces drove the bloody regime from power. Nearly two million people were executed or died of starvation, illness and abuse during the Khmer Rouge's years in power.
Before his death, Ta Mok denied killing anyone and said he performed only general military duties.
For several years, the Cambodia government and the United Nations negotiated how to establish a tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge. The tribunal was formally established this year.
Galabru says the prolonged negotiations meant that many aging suspects - like Ta Mok - have died before facing justice.
Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in 1998. Other top members of the regime, including former head of state Khieu Samphan and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, live freely in Cambodia. But they are in poor health.
Only Kaing Khek Iev, known as Duch, is in detention. He headed Phnom Penh's Toul Sleng interrogation center and prison, where thousands of Cambodians were killed.
Despite Ta Mok's death, Licadho's Galabru says the $56 million tribunal must move forward. She says it is an important step in the fight against Cambodia's culture of impunity.
"We would like to send the message to the new generation explaining to them, if you break the law, you cannot escape the justice," said Galabru. "Even 40 years after, you have to face the trial and you will be prosecuted."
Ta Mok's family has asked for his body to be taken to Anlong Veng, the former Khmer Rouge stronghold in northern Cambodia where he lived before being captured.