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Ieng Sary, Co-Founder of Khmer Rouge, Dies While on Trial

This undated photo shows Ieng Sary with Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Documentation Center of Cambodia Archive)
This undated photo shows Ieng Sary with Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Documentation Center of Cambodia Archive)
PHNOM PENH - Ieng Sary, the co-founder and foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge, died early Thursday morning, due to heart complications, officials said.

Ieng Sary, who was 87, was on trial for atrocity crimes alongside two other aging regime leaders when he was hospitalized March 4. His death confirmed the worst fears of victims of the regime: that the leaders accused of crimes including genocide will not see justice under a tribunal that has struggled to complete its work.

Citing doctors at a press conference Thursday, Chea Leang, a prosecutor for the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, said Ieng Sary died from heart failure. He had been on oxygen and unable to eat in his final days.

Ieng Sary, the brother-in-law of Pol Pot, was a major figure in Cambodia following the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, helping lead the movement in a factional civil war that lasted until 1998. He was arrested in 2007 and charged with atrocity crimes, including genocide, by the tribunal, where his trial was under way. The case against him closes with his death, Chea Leang said.

The passing of Ieng Sary underscores lingering questions for the tribunal and its ability to complete the trials of former leaders. Ieng Sary’s wife, Ieng Thirith, was released from detention at the tribunal last year, found mentally unfit to stand trial. That leaves just two leaders, ideologue Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan, on trial, and two more cases that would require five more indictments and that may never move forward. A hearing is scheduled later this month to determine whether Nuon Chea is healthy enough to continue a trial.

International deputy prosecutor William Smith said Thursday that Ieng Sary’s death before the completion of his trial was “not a failure of the court” and that the work of the court “will not stop here.”

Michael Karnavas, an international defense attorney for Ieng Sary, said he regretted the death of Ieng Sary. “Now he can rest in peace,” Karnavas said. But he also acknowledged the court had moved slowly in bringing him to trial, calling proceedings “very late.”

Ieng Sary’s remains will be cremated at the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Malai district, Bantheay Meanchey province, about a week from now, according to family members. Armed forces have been deployed to ensure security following his death, officials said.