The U.N.-assisted tribunal trying leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge on charges of genocide and other crimes affirmed Tuesday it will cease legal proceedings against Nuon Chea, the communist group's No. 2 leader who died at age 93 on Aug. 4 while his conviction was under appeal.
A statement by the tribunal's Supreme Court Chamber cited Cambodian law and international criminal tribunal precedent as the basis for its ruling. It also acknowledged a request by Nuon Chea's defense team to clarify how ending the appeal due to Nuon Chea's death affects "the trial judgment and underlying convictions" — whether it leaves his conviction standing, or nullifies it.
Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue for the Khmer Rouge, was convicted in two separate trials of crimes against humanity, genocide and other offenses committed when the Khmer Rouge held power in the late 1970s. About 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease, overwork and executions under its rule. He was tried along with Khieu Samphan, the regime's former head of state, who like him received life sentences in both trials. Cambodia does not have capital punishment.
One of Nuon Chea's lawyers, Australian Doreen Chen, said last week that her team believes that according to law, their late client "is presumed innocent until a final appeal judgment is delivered."
"Since the Supreme Court Chamber hasn't issued the appeal judgment, he is now considered innocent and that trial judgment against him is effectively vacated. We have asked the Supreme Court Chamber to confirm this view and let us know what should happen next," she said in an interview over the internet.
She also said they are seeking to have his appeal continue despite his death "so that there can be a final judgment and confirmation of the truth, not only for Nuon Chea but for the Cambodian people."
The tribunal, which has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, has convicted only one other defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who as head of the Khmer Rouge prison system ran the infamous Tuol Sleng torture center in Phnom Penh. Two other defendants died before their trials could be completed.
Khieu Samphan, 88, is the only surviving defendant and almost certainly will be the last one to face trial, due to the Cambodian government's opposition to launching any more prosecutions.