Ieng Sary was the most slippery of the Khmer Rouge leaders--a master dissimulator who easily shed old revolutionary convictions and adopted new guises. He
was "a devious manipulative man, crafty rather than clever," wrote Philip Short in his book Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. "He concealed
insincerity beneath a calculated ability to make himself agreeable." Unlike his austere comrades, Sary was also a revolutionary with a taste for the finer
things, such as lobster thermidor, cognac, and French perfume, which he enjoyed during years of starvation and civil war. "When he dropped his normally
radiant smile, [it was clear] how dark and harsh his face could become,"wrote James Pringle, a former Reuters correspondent who first met Sary in China in 1971. "I would hate to have faced him across an interrogation table."
After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion in January 1979, Sary and his colleagues fled to the Thai border, where they re-established
themselves in jungle bases and, with Chinese and Western support, waged war on the new Vietnam-backed government that had replaced them. Sary, now in
charge of the movement's finances, installed himself in Pailin, a dusty boomtown surrounded by rich gem and timber deposits. By the 1990s he had grown rich
-- much richer than his austere revolutionary colleagues. Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the two remaining defendants at Cambodia's war crimes court, did not
profit from their careers. Pol Pot died, defeated and penniless, in 1998.
In August 1996, Sary defected to the government in return for a royal amnesty that quashed a death penalty handed down by a Phnom Penh tribunal in 1979.
Sary and his wife lived a comfortable life in a shady villa in central Phnom Penh, jetting off to Thailand regularly for medical treatment. Justice finally
caught up with the pair in November 2007, when they were arrested and charged with crimes against humanity. It was a heady moment: Nearly 30 years after
the Khmer Rouge fell from power, there was a hope that at last justice would be done.
But Ieng Sary's death mid-trial is a major setback for Cambodia's war crimes court, known officially as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of
Cambodia. After six years and more than $150 million, the tribunal has secured just one conviction--that of Comrade Duch, a former school teacher who was
sentenced to life in prison for his role in running S-21, a grisly security center where he oversaw the interrogation and torture of as many as 15,000
The two remaining defendants in the court's second case, known as Case 002, are also frail and in uncertain health: 86-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer
Rouge's chief ideologue and "Brother Number Two" to Pol Pot, has been in and out of hospital and was reported earlier this year to be "approaching death." Khieu
Samphan, the regime's former head of state, is 81. Peter Maguire, the author of Facing Death in Cambodia, compared Sary's death to that of the
Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 while on trial at The Hague, and argued that both tribunals allowed themselves to become mired in legal
minutiae. "This is typical of the UN's post-Cold War war-crimes trials," he said. "Like the Milosevic case, there is no urgency."