PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Decades after Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge movement oversaw the deaths of 1.7 million people by starvation, overwork and execution, the regime's imprisoned top leaders are escaping justice one by one. How? Old age.
Thursday's death of 87-year-old Ieng Sary, foreign minister under the Khmer Rouge, has fueled urgent calls among survivors and rights groups for the country's U.N.-backed tribunal to expedite proceedings against the increasingly frail and aging leaders of the radical communist group, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
Ieng Sary's wife, former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last year because she has a degenerative mental illness consistent with Alzheimer's disease. Only two top Khmer Rouge leaders – ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, who is 81, and the movement's former chief ideologist, Nuon Chea, who is 86 – remain on trial for charges they carried out some of the 20th century's most horrific crimes.
There are growing fears that both men could die before a verdict is rendered. Both are frail with high blood pressure and have suffered strokes.
"The defendants are getting old, and the survivors are getting old," said Bou Meng, one of the few Cambodians to survive Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21, where up to 16,000 people were tortured and killed during the Khmer Rouge era. "The court needs to speed up its work."
"I have been waiting for justice for nearly 40 years," Bou Meng, 70, told The Associated Press. "I never thought it would take so long."
When the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, they began moving an estimated 1 million people – even hospital patients – from the capital into the countryside in an effort to create a communist agrarian utopia.
By the time the bizarre experiment ended in 1979 with an invasion by Vietnamese troops, an estimated 1.7 million people had died in Cambodia, which had a population of only about 7 million at the time. Most died from starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution under the Maoist regime. Their bodies were dumped in shallow mass graves that still dot the countryside.
The tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was tasked with seeking justice for crimes committed during that era.
The court was 10 years in the making and opened in 2006. But despite some $150 million in funding, it has so far convicted only one defendant: Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, the commandant of S-21 prison.
Duch was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The sentence was reduced to a 19-year term because of time previously served and other technicalities, a move that sparked angry criticism from victims who said it was too lenient. Cambodia has no death penalty.
Several other major Khmer Rouge figures died before the court even existed, including supreme leader Pol Pot in 1998.
Ieng Sary's death was no surprise given his age and ailing health, said Ou Virak, who heads the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. But "given the fact that the other two defendants are also in their 80s, it should act as a wake-up call to all concerned – the Cambodian government, the U.N., the international donors and the tribunal itself – that these cases need to be expedited urgently so that justice can be served."
"The whole future of the tribunal is currently in limbo, and the possibility that hundreds of millions of dollars will have been wasted is now a very real threat," Ou Virak said. "Most importantly, though, if all three die before their guilt or innocence can be determined, then the Cambodian people will quite understandably feel robbed of justice."
The court has been criticized before for the sluggish pace of proceedings. But one of its prosecutors, William Smith, said the trial has taken time because the indictments are lengthy and the list of alleged crimes long.
The tribunal has been dogged by other problems, including funding shortages from international donors. Earlier this month, Cambodian translators angry that they had gone without pay for three months went on strike just before the court was to hear testimony from two foreign experts.
Tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra said Thursday that the interpreters would all return to work this week after the court administrator promised that they would get paid. But he added that the translators have threatened to strike again if they are not paid by month's end.
In recent years, the tribunal has also been hit by infighting and angry resignations by foreign judges over whether to try more Khmer Rouge defendants on war crimes charges. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, has warned that no more trials will be allowed. Many former members of the Khmer Rouge, including Hun Sen himself, hold important positions in the current government.
After Ieng Sary's death, Human Rights Watch issued a statement blaming Hun Sen for denying justice.
"(He) asked the United Nations in 1997 for assistance in holding Khmer Rouge leaders accountable - and since then has done everything in his power to stymie the tribunal's work," said Brad Adams, Asia director for the rights group. "Hun Sen bears primary responsibility for denying justice to the victims of Ieng Sary's atrocities."
The trial against Ieng Sary, his wife and the last two accused senior Khmer Rouge leaders alive began jointly in 2011. All have denied guilt for any crimes and have said they acted in Cambodians' best interest during the radical communist movement's rule.
Lars Olsen, another tribunal spokesman, said Thursday that "we understand that many probably are disappointed with the fact that we cannot complete the proceedings against Ieng Sary, and therefore we cannot determine" whether he is guilty or innocent of the charges against him.
But it's important to remember, he said, that the case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan "is not over." He said it would not be affected by Ieng Sary's death and proceedings will continue on schedule.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent group gathering evidence of the Khmer Rouge crimes for the tribunal, said Ieng Sary's death "carries little value for the regime's victims, who patiently wait to see justice done."
Ieng Sary died early Thursday at a Phnom Penh hospital, where he was admitted earlier this month suffering from weakness and fatigue. He suffered heart failure, said one of the prosecutors in his case, Chea Leang, who added that under Cambodian law, all charges against him will now officially be dropped.
Yim Sopheak, a 47-year-old street vendor who said the Khmer Rouge regime had executed her parents, said Ieng Sary "deserved to die in prison, not in a hospital. He should have died in the same way as he executed my parents and other people."
Yi Chea, a 72-year-old flower seller who says her husband and other relatives were also killed during Khmer Rouge rule, said she was happy Ieng Sary was gone. But, she added that "he did not deserve to die naturally like this."
Tribunal hearings resume on March 25, said Neth Pheaktra. Foreign medical experts are due to testify on the health status of Nuon Chea, to determine whether the ailing ex-leader is still fit to continue to stand trial.
Pitman reported from Bangkok.