Ex-Khmer Rouge top diplomat faces court

Looking frail and sickly, Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, faced a UN-backed Cambodian genocide court Monday in a case that is proving to be a test case for the tribunal.


The former Khmer Rouge foreign minister appeared before the UN-backed Cambodian genocide court Monday to appeal his detention, in a case that poses the first big test for the tribunal.

Ieng Sary, 82, is one of five top regime cadres currently detained for crimes allegedly committed during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule over Cambodia.

The aged and sickly looking former leader, who has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, walked into court with a cane and needed the help of guards to sit in the dock.

He said little during the hearing. When judges asked him his occupation, he answered simply: "I am retired."

His lawyers argued to the panel of five judges that Ieng Sary should be released due to poor health, saying he could be placed under house arrest to ensure that he remains fit enough for a trial, expected to begin within a year.

Ieng Sary has been hospitalized several times during his incarceration because of a heart condition.

One of his lawyers, Michael Karnavas, from the United States, warned that if Ieng Sary's health worsens, the entire process could be compromised -- echoing a fear voiced by supporters of the tribunal, who worry that the ageing Khmer Rouge leaders could become too ill to stand trial.

The joint Cambodia-UN tribunal was established in 2006 after nearly a decade of haggling to try former Khmer Rouge senior officials for crimes commited during the murderous regime.

Up to two million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed, as the Khmer Rouge dismantled modern Cambodia after seizing control of the country.

Co-prosecutor Yet Chakriya accused the defence team on Monday of attempting to delay Ieng Sary's proceedings.

"Ieng Sary has been well checked by doctors. There is no report to prove that his health condition cannot allow him to participate in the hearing," the lawyer added.

"There is no report to the (court) that Ieng Sary cannot attend any future hearings. Health issues raised by the co-defendant lawyer are groundless."

The hearing was attended by about 300 Cambodian citizens. Heng Sruy, 57, travelled from the southwestern province of Kampot to listen to proceedings and said he hoped the court would continue his detention.

"I want to hear Ieng Sary speak the truth," Heng Sruy said. "I lost many relatives under the Khmer Rouge regime. I can't remember how many, but a lot."

Later in the week, Ieng Sary's lawyers are expected to argue that the charges should be dropped because he received a royal pardon in 1996 in return for surrendering to the government.

Resolving how to reconcile a past amnesty with the international court's authority will be one of the prickliest issues to faces the judges at the tribunal, which operates on a mixture of Cambodian and international law.

As the top Khmer Rouge diplomat, Ieng Sary was frequently the only point of contact between Cambodia's secretive communist rulers and the outside world.

He was also one of the biggest public supporters of the regime's mass purges, researchers say.

His wife Thirith, who also became a minister in the Khmer Rouge regime, was arrested with him in November.

Ieng Sary has suffered from deteriorating health since his arrest, according to his lawyer, highlighting the fragile condition of the tribunal's likely defendants, who are mostly in their 70s and 80s.

The other former leaders in jail awaiting trial are "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan, and Kaing Guek Eav "Duch" who ran the S-21 torture centre in Phnom Penh.

Duch's trial is expected to begin in September.

Khmer Rouge head Pol Pot died in 1998.

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