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Key leader of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime dies in hospital
''It is quite regrettable because he died before the trial''
The Associated Press (apwire)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-21 18:08 (KST)   
Ta Mok, one of the chief architects of the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule of Cambodia during the 1970s, died Friday, triggering outrage and disappointment that he will never face justice for his role in atrocities that killed almost 2 million people.

The death came as a U.N.-backed process to put former Khmer Rouge leaders on trial was finally gathering pace, and makes Ta Mok the latest senior figure from the ex-regime to die before facing court.

Ta Mok, who has been in government detention since his capture in 1999, died Friday morning in a military hospital, his lawyer said.

He was believed to be 80.

Ta Mok was transferred from prison to the hospital in the capital, PhnomPenh, late last month suffering from high blood pressure, tuberculosis and respiratory complications. He had been in and out of a coma since last week.

Ta Mok, whose real name is Ung Choeun, was one of two senior Khmer Rouge officials in detention awaiting trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The other detained leader of the defunct communist movement is Kaing Khek Iev, also known as Duch, who headed the notorious S-21 torture center in Phnom Penh.

The group's extremist policies during its rule in the late 1970s led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people through starvation, overwork, disease and execution.

''It's sad news--it's outrageous,'' said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent group researching the Khmer Rouge's crimes. ''Some people may be happy with this, but not the victims who have been waiting for justice for a long time.'' Traffic became congested in front of the hospital as people stopped by to try to learn more about Ta Mok's death.

''I've seen a television broadcast that said Ta Mok has died,'' said 44-year-old Pen Suy, an onlooker. ''It is quite regrettable because he died before the trial.'' Earlier this month, judges and prosecutors from Cambodia and foreign countries were sworn in for the U.N.-backed trials, expected to begin in 2007. Cambodian and U.N.-appointed prosecutors have begun gathering evidence for the trials.

Reach Sambath, a tribunal spokesman, described Ta Mok's death as regretful but declined to elaborate.

He said his office will issue a formal statement later Friday.

''It is unfortunate that, for the victims of the Khmer Rouge, death stole so much from their lives, and now death has stolen a chance for them to find justice,'' said Jeff Daigle, a U.S. Embassy spokesman.

''The death of Ta Mok is yet another reason to ensure that the KR tribunal moves forward with its work as expeditiously as possible,'' he said.

Nicknamed ''The Butcher'' by the Western press, Ta Mok briefly took the helm of the Khmer Rouge as the movement disintegrated, taking its leader Pol Pot prisoner shortly before he died in April 1998.

Unlike other surviving leaders, Ta Mok fought to the end, refusing to surrender to the government which had offered them amnesty. He was captured along with a small band of followers in 1999.

During the war that brought the Khmer Rouge to power and their 1975-79 rule, he gained a reputation for chilling ruthlessness, and was by many accounts responsible for massacres, purges and abysmal conditions in his area of control.

But to the end he maintained his innocence, telling his lawyer recently that he had never killed anyone.

Two leading figures from Cambodian human rights groups said Ta Mok was an important source of information needed for the tribunal.

''I regret that we have lost important physical evidence,'' said Kem Sokha, president of the U.S.-funded Cambodian Center for Human Rights.''What is most regrettable is that a lot of money has been spent on the tribunal and now a crucial piece of evidence has been lost, and that is going to downgrade the value of the tribunal,'' he said, referring to the estimated US$56 million (euro44.3 million) tribunal budget.

Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho, said Ta Mok's death was ''an omen'' for the remaining aging Khmer Rouge leaders, who could also cheat victims of the justice due them by dying before they have to stand trial.

''What we are afraid of is that one by one the former senior Khmer Rouge leaders will depart from our world,'' Kek Galabru said.

''At the end, the tribunal will face difficulties in finding key people to prosecute. When they die one by one, little significance will be left for the tribunal,'' she added.

An ambulance picked up Ta Mok's body from the hospital hours after he died. His niece Ven Dara said Ta Mok would be taken for traditional Buddhist rites to Anlong Veng,the formerKhmer Rouge stronghold in northern Cambodia where he lived before his capture.
By KER MUNTHIT
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter The Associated Press

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