KHMER Rouge tribunal defendant Ieng Sary, who served as deputy prime minister of foreign affairs for a regime that oversaw the deaths of nearly 2 million people, died Thursday morning at the age of 87.
Sary had been suffering for some time from a host of ailments – most recently gastro-intestinal problems that rendered him immobile and unresponsive, and largely prevented the ex-number three in the regime from eating or drinking.
Sary’s lawyer, Michael Karnavas, said he passed away at approximately 8:55am. In a brief statement released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the court said the official cause of death was still being determined by the prosecutors.
The death comes as the UN-backed court has been reeling from a decision by its Supreme Court Chamber to strike an order that had severed the case against Sary and his three co-accused into multiple sub-trials – a measure that was initially taken to ensure that at least some verdicts could be handed down before the defendants died or were rendered unfit to stand trial due to their advanced age.
Sary was born on October 24, 1925, in what is present-day southern Vietnam, to a Chinese immigrant mother and a father who belonged to the Khmer Krom minority – one of the groups singled out for persecution under the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
According to court documents, Sary enrolled in secondary school at Sisowath High School in the 1940s, where he met Khieu Thirith, both his future wife and his future co-defendant for her role as the Khmer Rouge’s chief propagandist. While there, Sary also met Saloth Sar – a man who would become better known as Pol Pot, Brother No. 1 and architect of the Khmer Rouge’s ultra-Maoist revolution.
In 1950, Sary won a scholarship to study at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, and moved to France, where he began to dabble in communism, ultimately becoming a founding member the Marxist Circle of Khmer Students.
Like several other intellectual leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Sary became a teacher upon returning to Cambodia in 1957, holding a professorship in history and geography at the Kampucheabot Private High School until 1963, when he made his way to the Vietnamese border to join Pol Pot after being singled out as a “leftist” by then-King Norodom Sihanouk.
In the same year, Sary became a full-rights member of the standing committee of the Workers Party of Kampuchea.
Presaging his future role as foreign minister, Ieng Sary travelled to Hanoi in 1970 to establish the radio station “Voice of the FUNK” – or National United Front of Kampuchea – before flying on to China, where he became “Special Envoy of the Internal Resistance in Beijing,” liaising with both deposed King Sihanouk and the Chinese Communist Party, which would become the Khmer Rouge’s greatest patron.
Sary was announced as the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister in August of 1975, just four months after the group finally wrested the last vestiges of control from the US-backed Lon Nol regime and emptied the cities on April 17. Sary himself, however, disputed the date, saying he didn’t assume the role until the following year.
During his tenure as foreign minister, Sary travelled extensively, becoming the face of Democratic Kampuchea abroad on state visits and in meetings at the UN, as well as at home, where he would escort foreign delegations who visited the fledgling “agrarian utopia”.
On one such visit, just before the regime’s fall, British professor and self-proclaimed Khmer Rouge sympathizer Malcolm Caldwell was shot and killed. Caldwell had been joined on the trip by American journalists Richard Dudman and Elizabeth Becker.
The confessions tortured out of Caldwell’s killers said that they had been hired to assassinate him to shame the regime, and perhaps to shame Sary personally. However, in her book When the War Was Over, Becker maintained that “Malcolm Caldwell’s death was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired”.
“No, I haven’t changed my mind since writing my book,” she wrote in an email last year. “However, what was striking was how long it took for anyone to come to our rescue. There was no doubt that our visit was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Caldwell’s killers’ confessions were extracted at the infamous S-21 detention centre, a crime site that the court is now considering adding to the case against Sary’s two remaining co-defendants – his wife, Ieng Thirith, was deemed mentally incapable of standing trial, due to dementia, and was granted a conditional release last year.
The additional crime site was proposed by the prosecution after the ruling from the Supreme Court Chamber striking down the trial chamber’s controversial decision to sever Case 002 – a decision that Karnavas, Sary’s attorney, said may be held up as having been vindicated by Sary’s death.
“Vindication sounds about right; the Trial Chamber can hardly be righteous about it,” Karnavas said, via email Wednesday. “The trial proceedings have not exactly been well managed, especially from the efficiency standpoint. This is one of those situations where, when it is all over, a seminar can be done on lessons learned – mostly from the negative side and much of it unnecessary.”
Sary’s experience at the court was bookended by silence and absence.
In 2011, as the trials were beginning, Sary took the stand to give a brief statement, only to reiterate his previously expressed intention to exercise his right to remain silent.
In his last months at the court, Sary was in and out of the hospital being treated for chronic, and gradually worsening, conditions. When not hospitalized, he was relegated to following the trial from his holding cell due to his health concerns, concerns that Karnavas maintained had rendered him incapable of following, much less participating in, his own trial.
“We have been very disappointed from the outset by the way Mr. Ieng Sary was treated,” Karnavas wrote. “During the opening statements, when Mr. Ieng Sary was suffering and in pain, the trial chamber kept him in the courtroom even though he waived his presence. Why was this? Simply for show!”
Far from compelling him to remain present, the court refused to allow Sary follow proceedings from the courtroom once his illnesses had rendered him immobile.
“His right to waive his presence was not respected, just as his right not to waive was not respected,” said Karnavas. “I do think that to some extent, Mr. Ieng Sary’s health deteriorated because of some shortsighted decisions. In the end, his so called presence and ability to follow and participate was fictional.”
“This is perhaps the low point,” he added.
Nonetheless, Sary was “always professional and dignified,” said Karnavas, who called it a “privilege” to represent Sary.