Ieng Sary, one of several senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime on trial for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s, died today in Phnom Penh at the age of 87, according to the court.
Prosecutors will investigate the cause of death of the regime’s former foreign minister, who had been hospitalized since March 4, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia said in a statement. Other defendants include his wife Ieng Thirith, 81, former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81, and Nuon Chea, 86, the movement’s second-in-command.
His death comes as the United Nations-backed tribunal struggles to finance the trials, which were designed to bring justice decades after the regime collapsed and have produced one conviction since the court was established in 2006. Some local staff members stopped working on March 4 because they haven’t been paid for three months, said Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the court.
“Unless we have interpreters and translators it will be difficult to hold hearings,” Olsen said by phone. “No resolution has been reached yet in terms of payment for the national staff.”
The court last month said it had reduced its operating costs by $15.1 million for 2012-2013 to $69.6 million. The budget is divided between local and international staff.
Prosecutors have said Ieng Sary directed, encouraged, enforced and supported the regime’s policies of murder, political persecution, extermination and forcible transfer of the population. After his arrest, he said he was “very happy” the court was established because it would give him a chance “to discover the truth and also to share what I know.”
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and military chief Ta Mok have also died. Ieng Sary had been hospitalized on numerous occasions, including for problems with his urinary system.
His wife, Ieng Thirith, a former social affairs minister, was found unfit to stand trial in 2011 due to dementia and remains under court supervision. Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were hospitalized in January.
Many Cambodians are too young to remember the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979, with about a third of the country’s 15 million people under the age of 15. The regime’s leaders lived freely in Cambodia for years until the government requested UN assistance in 1997 to start a tribunal.
In 2010, Kang Kek Ieu, the regime’s top jailer, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the first and only conviction. The remaining defendants are charged with crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Conventions, genocide and murder, torture and religious persecution under the Cambodian Criminal Code of 1956.
The Khmer Rouge took power after a U.S. bombing campaign during the Vietnam War stirred discontent in the countryside against General Lon Nol’s coup-installed government. Led by Pol Pot, the regime evacuated Phnom Penh to put people to work on farms and closed all schools, universities and monasteries. Money, markets and private property were abolished.
The regime collapsed in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and took over the capital. The U.S. and China backed the Khmer Rouge to continue representing Cambodia at the United Nations, providing the regime legitimacy until 1993, when the first post-conflict elections were held.
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