PHNOM PENH — Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary has died at the age of 87, representatives from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia confirmed Thursday.
ECCC spokesperson Lars Olsen confirmed to GlobalPost that Sary passed away at 8:45 a.m. local time at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh.
Ieng Sary's death cuts short legal efforts to prosecute him for war crimes committed during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s.
A major Khmer Rouge leader and the brother-in-law of Khmer Rouge head Pol Pot, Ieng Sary represented one of the three co-defendants in Case 002, the second to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, an international tribunal established to finally seek justice for the millions who died during the genocidal communist regime.
The octogenarian's cause of death was "irreversible cardiac failure," co-prosecutor Chea Leang said in a hospital press conference. No autopsy will take place, and hospital authorities have released Ieng Sary's body to his family for funeral services.
According to the ECCC, Ieng Sary's demise "has the effect of terminating all criminal and civil actions" against him, officially ending the case.
"It's upsetting both as a victim of the regime and as a human rights activist," Cambodian Center for Human Rights director Ou Virak said of the death.
"One of the most senior leaders is escaping justice, and the rest are old and sick. The tribunal is in danger of being a wasteful exercise of hundreds of millions of dollars."
Sary had recently suffered from ill health and had often been absent from the court proceedings at the ECCC chambers outside of Phnom Penh.
The aging Ieng Sary's fitness to stand trial had recently been in doubt, although a professional geriatrician assessed his mental and physical status and deemed him capable in November, according to the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor.
Ieng Sary's 80-year-old wife, Ieng Thirith, was in 2012 dubbed mentally unfit to stand trial for her own role in the genocide. In a controversial decision, she was released by the courtback into public life in September.
The case against surviving defendants Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan — also top Khmer Rouge figures — won't be affected by Ieng Sary's death, co-prosecutor William Smith said at the hospital press conference. Smith emphasized the legacy the war tribunal intends to leave behind.
"When we talk about legacy, really we're talking about the end of impunity in Cambodia, where people in power commit crimes against members of the population," said Smith.
He added that the advanced age of the tribunal's defendants is a reality that must be accepted. "We can't turn back the hands of time and make the accused young again, so they can avoid death from natural causes."
Read more from GlobalPost: Cambodia: Khmer Rouge honcho not so senile after all
Theary Seng, a withdrawn civil party to Case 002 and the president of the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia, told GlobalPost that Ieng Sary's death, while unsurprising, is a loss for justice.
"His death was incredible in the sense that he took with him information that we needed, that we as Cambodians needed," Seng observed Thursday.
Amnesty International researcher on Cambodia Rupert Abbot called for haste in the proceedings of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, noting the advanced age of surviving defendants Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea and the court's financial woes.
“The news of Ieng Sary’s death will be difficult for the victims of the Khmer Rouge crimes who have waited so long for justice," noted Abbot, adding that Ieng Sary should not be presumed guilty of any crime, as the court failed to reach a verdict before his death.
“The Cambodian government and donor countries should provide the full resources required for the proceedings in this case and others to move forward, so that justice can be served," he said.
Phnom Penh political analyst Lao Mong Hay commented on the public debate over both the slow pace of the trial and the ever-advancing age of the defendants.
"We knew right from the beginning the accused were old and getting older," he told GlobalPost.
"Perhaps the public needs to consider whether we are having a moral dilemma. If these people are too old to be tried, should we have a trial or not?"