PHNOM PENH - The Khmer Rouge’s former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, has died in Phnom Penh at age 87. He was one of three defendants in the genocide trial of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge and his death highlights the problems the United Nations-backed tribunal has as it seeks to deliver some form of justice.
Since the start of the trial in late 2011, Ieng Sary has been seen as the most frail of the defendants. His heart condition and various other ailments meant the Khmer Rouge’s former foreign minister was often absent from court - either recuperating in hospital, where he spent more than two months last year, or watching proceedings from a holding cell.
International defense lawyer Michael Karanavas says that, although his health had long been poor his death was still a surprise.
“In the last ten days, his health deteriorated rather rapidly," said Karanavas.
Ieng Sary’s death raises questions about the pace at which the tribunal is proceeding. The court began Case Two - as the trial of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge is known - in late 2011, with four defendants. But, last year Ieng Thirith - who was Ieng Sary’s wife and the former social affairs minister - was ruled unfit for trial after the court found she had dementia.
Now, with the death of Ieng Sary, who was the third-ranking person in the Cambodian Communist party, just two defendants remain: Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue who is also known as Brother Number Two; and the former head of state, Khieu Samphan.
Nuon Chea is 86 and was hospitalized in January, although he has now recovered. Khieu Samphan, who is 81, is still in reasonable health.
Speaking at a news conference at the hospital in Phnom Penh where Ieng Sary died, tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen says the court - known formally as the ECCC - will formally terminate proceedings against Ieng Sary, as per Cambodian law.
“But it is also important to remember that Case 002 is not over. The charges against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the two co-accused in Case 002, are not affected by the passing of Ieng Sary," said Olsen. "The ECCC will continue its proceedings against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.”
But, there are more problems facing the court than simply the ailments of the defendants - funding for one.
None of the Cambodian staff has been paid since November and, on March 4, the translators went on strike in protest. The court has not managed to hear evidence since.
The government and the international donors are currently engaged in a standoff, one side waiting for the other to agree to pay.
Add to that allegations of political interference, corruption and the slow pace of proceedings and it is easy to understand why many Cambodians are frustrated, says Youk Chhang, the head of the genocide research organization called the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Youk Chhang says Ieng Sary’s death is no victory for the Cambodian people, who deserve to see justice being done in court.
“I think that the government and the U.N. have the obligation - they made the promise since the Holocaust 60 years ago - to punish and prevent genocide. And, I think they need to work out their differences to allow the court to complete,” siad Chhang.
Youk Chhang, who survived the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule, says administrative matters and political differences must not stand in the way of what he calls “this solemn oath”.
“Victims deserve to see the court also complete its work - and that is important for us,” he added.
The next step for the Khmer Rouge tribunal is a health hearing for Nuon Chea. That is scheduled for later this month.
Still, for many Cambodians the demise of Ieng Sary means yet another senior Khmer Rouge figure has escaped responsibility for some of the worst crimes of the 20th century.