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Trouble at the tribunal: Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary dies before conviction

The Khmer Rouge communist regime in Cambodia was responsible for the deaths of some 2 million in the 1970s. Ieng Sary's death puts a spotlight on the tribunal's many hurdles.

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Ieng Sary waits to be questioned at the court hall of the UN-backed war crimes tribunal on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in this Dec. 2011 file photo. The former Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs died Thursday morning.

Mark Peters/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia/AP/File

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Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs, died this morning at the age of 87 in Phnom Penh, before he was convicted for his role in the communist regime’s mass atrocities between 1975 and 1979.

For living victims of the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Sary’s death was heartbreaking: He had, in a sense, escaped. His death highlights fears across the country that the regime's leaders will never be held accountable. 

The pattern of former leaders escaping criminal justice is common in Cambodia. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge strongman, died in 1998, decades after he commanded one of the most extreme communist regimes in history, in which almost 2 million people were killed. Ieng Thirith, Sary’s widow and ex-minister of social affairs, was released last year on mental health grounds. And then there are the untold numbers of former Khmer Rouge cadres, many of whom are in the current government, who have never seen the inside of a courtroom.

Since the tribunal opened in 2006, it has indicted a prison warden, sentenced to life last year. And the two other cases left are beset by allegations of government interference and political pressure.

“This is looking like a failure,” a local reporter bluntly told court prosecutors and officials at a press conference Thursday afternoon, after Sary’s body was taken from the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital and handed over to his family. “What has this court achieved?”

An equally important question, say analysts, is what can this court achieve now that only two defendants, Pol Pot’s No. 2, Nuon Chea, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, are the only defendants left? Like Sary, they are in their ‘80s.

“With half as many accused and only a limited number of crimes likely to be addressed, any Case 002 judgment [as the name of the case against Sary, the second in the tribunal, is called] will inevitably be less significant than hoped,” says Anne Heindel, a legal adviser who monitors the court closely. Though lauding the court for being of “inestimable value in generating discussion about the Khmer Rouge era throughout Cambodia,” she says its legacy is at stake. 

That the tribunal is going through some difficult times, might be an understatement. 

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The court is beset by hurdles: Some 270 Cambodian staffers of the UN-backed tribunal have not been paid in three months due to funding shortages, and about 30 of them went on strike earlier this month after a dramatic walkout in which Cambodia interpreters refused to convey the proceedings into English and Khmer. Though the strike temporarily ended yesterday, the staff warned of another if wages aren’t paid soon. And a few months ago, two lawyers for Nuon Chea quit, calling the court a “farce” in several newspapers on their way out.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has publicly voiced opposition to future cases because of his stated fear that more arrests would result in chaos. And the court itself is currently entangled in proceedings that will determine the scope of the trial, something that many say should have been decided a long time ago.

In the face of this, officials were quick to clarify Sary’s death wouldn’t affect the charges against the two remaining defendants.

“The loss of a second accused from Case 002 is a critical blow for the Court psychologically, particularly in the midst of a funding crisis and national staff strike,” says Ms. Heindel. “There will be massive pressure to expedite proceedings, likely guaranteeing that the scope of charges will remain narrow.” 

Trial hearings are schedule to resume March 25 for a medical hearing on the fitness of Chea.

Still, argues Youk Chhang, a Khmer Rouge survivor and a director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a research institution that has provided documents to the tribunal for use in the trials, the tribunal has to move on. 

“There is still time left to do their best to bring about justice for those who survived."

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