Over 25 years after two million people were killed under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary is facing a UN Genocide Tribunal. He has appealed for release from detention.
Ieng Sary in court on Monday
For the few survivors of the terror regime the Khmer Rouge, every new hearing of the Cambodia genocide tribunal is hard to bear. Long suppressed memories of the horror return. ‘’At that time I felt like we were in a jail with no walls. We didn’t know where to go, or how to live at that time. I felt I could die any time. We could not say anything. And when we made a mistake they would kill,’’ recalls Kosal, a victim.
For people like Kosal, it will be difficult to watch how ‘Brother Number 3’ Ieng Sary tries with all possible judicial finesse to get himself out of the tight spot at the tribunal. Sary’s lawyers have appealed for release from pre-trial detention on account of his deteriorating health.
Ieng Sary, companion to Pol Pot in their student days in Paris, and later on his foreign minister and key diplomat, is today in his ripe old age. Even now, he shows no sign of insight or remorse. Last October, he was quoted as saying, ‘’I have done nothing wrong. I am a gentle human being and believe in good deeds. I cannot accept that the Khmer Rouge regime is being accused of genocide.’’
Diplomatic tactics to sidestep conviction
Sary is experienced in tactical manoeuvres to secure his own survival. In 1979, after the Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge out of the Cambodian capital, a public tribunal tried Sary in absentia and sentenced him to death.
But Sary switched sides and struck a deal with the government, which finally led to the surrender of the Khmer Rouge. Through this, he was able to secure royal pardon from the death sentence. Now the UN tribunal must decide whether Sary can be tried twice for the same charge.
Ieng Sary has been claiming that he is neither aware of the torture camp at the Toul Sleng in the capital, nor of country-wide atrocities against most of the population. This does not sound credible, as it was Sary who ordered the diplomatic corps of Cambodia, Cambodian youth studying abroad and many other intellectuals to return to Cambodia, only to be murdered shortly thereafter.
The trial is symbolic
After the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Ieng Sary returned to civilian life -- and reportedly lived in great luxury. Today he is an estimated 80 years old. He is suffering from poor health and has already been hospitalised several times during his incarceration. So irrespective of the outcome of the hearing, his days are numbered. But the significance of the proceedings goes far beyond each individual offender, says Axel Schmidt from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Phnom Penh.
He argues it is not important how many people are convicted in the tribunal: ‘’You can question why you should try people when they are 80 and may even die during the process. So what is it for? The proceedings have a symbolic character,’’ says Schmidt.
The court proceedings on Monday were adjourned early after Sary complained of ill health. He will now face the tribunal once again on Tuesday.