Civil parties who suffered under the Khmer Rouge called on the government Tuesday to try to take back the riches illegitimately amassed by the regime’s former foreign minister Ieng Sary.
Ieng Sary died last week aged 88, before a verdict could be reached in his trial, in which he was accused of war crimes for his senior role in the regime that oversaw the deaths of almost 2 million people.
As well as houses in Phnom Penh and his former base of Malai in Banteay Meanchey province, Ieng Sary is thought to have had access to a Hong Kong bank account through which the Chinese funded the ultra-Maoist movement both when it was in and out of power. According to the testimony of former cadre, the account at one point contained $20 million.
Ieng Sary, who is survived by decendents holding government posts and with business interests, also oversaw the lucrative extraction of gemstones and timber from the northwest after the Khmer Rouge was unseated from power in 1979.
“If there are assets, the assets should be given to the victims,” said Soum Rith, 62, a civil party in Case 002, who was imprisoned in Siem Reap province between 1977 and 1979 and lost three brothers during the regime.
Mr. Rith said the government should find a way to redistribute any money or property Ieng Sary had. “If the government is willing enough, they can do it,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2010 rejected a request from civil parties to investigate the assets of the defendants in the current Case 002 with a view to providing reparations. The court’s Pre-Trial Chamber ruled that such a move could only take place after a guilty verdict.
With his death, the court has dropped its case against Ieng Sary—by far the wealthiest of Pol Pot’s inner circle—ending any hope of the tribunal attempting to retrieve any of his wealth.
With Ieng Sary now dead and his wife Ieng Thirith having been declared unfit for trial, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are the only two defendants left on trial.
But complainants in the case said the government should take action to claw back the ill-gotten gains of Ieng Sary.
Sem Hoeurn, 52, another civil party, said it was particularly galling that leaders of the Khmer Rouge—who abolished money and confiscated all private property and land—should be allowed to get away with large sums of cash.
“It is only right that the government should confiscate all his property to give to the victims, since at the time of the Khmer Rouge, you could not have any belongings but your clothes,” said Ms. Hoeurn, who is seeking justice for her four brothers and her father, who died under the Khmer Rouge.
Thirty-seven-year-old Hav Sophea, who lost her father and 26 other relatives to the regime, said that while she would like to see Ieng Sary’s assets confiscated, she did not believe the government would act.
“I’m hopeless now,” she said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment in detail, but said reparations were a matter for the court.
“The government has nothing to do with that one,” he said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said there was precedent in the region for going after the ill-gotten wealth of deposed leaders held in bank accounts overseas.
The Philippines has, through court cases in Switzerland and the U.S., managed to recover millions of dollars that were amassed by dictator Ferdinand Marcos during his two-decade rule.
Investigators have also tried to recover the millions of dollars believed to have been amassed by Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, who was found guilty of war crimes at The Hague last year.
Another potential route is the World Bank and U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, which provides assistance for countries on request.
The initiative, known as StAR, “works with developing countries and financial centers to prevent the laundering of the proceeds of corruption and to facilitate more systematic and timely return of stolen assets,” according to the organization’s website.
“It’s possible [in Cambodia], but whether the government want to, that I do not know,” Mr. Mong Hay said.
© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.