Phnom Penh: Khmer Rouge co-founder Ieng Sary, who was on trial for the killings of an estimated 1.7 million people during the brutal movement in Cambodia in 1970s, died on Thursday morning at the age of 87.
Sary was Khmer Rouge`s most known face outside Cambodia. He died prior to any verdict in the war crimes case, much to the dismay of survivors and court prosecutors who were hoping for Sary`s conviction in the darkest chapter in the country`s history.
Sary was being tried by a joint Cambodian-international tribunal along with two other former Khmer Rouge leaders, both in their 80s, and there are fears that they, too, could also die before justice is served, reports a leading news agency.
Sary`s wife, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, had also been charged but was ruled unfit to stand trial last year because she suffered from a degenerative mental illness, probably Alzheimer`s disease.
Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the tribunal, confirmed Ieng Sary`s death. The cause was not immediately known, but he had suffered from high blood pressure and heart problems and had been admitted to a Phnom Penh hospital on March 4 with weakness and severe fatigue.
"We are disappointed that we could not complete the proceeding against Ieng Sary," Olsen said, adding the case against his colleagues Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge`s chief ideologist, and Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state, will continue and will not be affected.
Ieng Sary founded the Khmer Rouge with leader Pol Pot, his brother-in-law. The Communist regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, claimed it was building a pure socialist society by evicting people from cities to work in labour camps in the countryside. Its radical policies led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution.
Ieng Sary was foreign minister in the regime, and as its top diplomat became a much more recognizable figure internationally than his secretive colleagues. In 1996, years after the overthrown Khmer Rouge retreated to the jungle, he became the first member of its inner circle to defect, bringing thousands of foot soldiers with him and hastening the movement`s final disintegration.
The move secured him a limited amnesty, temporary credibility as a peacemaker and years of comfortable living in Cambodia, but that vanished as the UN-backed tribunal built its case against him.
The Khmer Rogue came to power through a civil war that toppled a US-backed regime. Ieng Sary then helped persuade hundreds of Cambodian intellectuals to return home from overseas, often to their deaths.
The returnees were arrested and put in "re-education camps," and most were later executed, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an independent group gathering evidence of the Khmer Rouge crimes for the tribunal.
(With Agency inputs)