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 that 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.
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, slavelike working conditions and execution. Their bodies were dumped in shallow mass graves that still dot the countryside.