Pol Pot `suicide' to avoid US trial

POL POT committed suicide last year after learning his Khmer Rouge rivals had offered to hand him over for trial on genocide charges, a Hong Kong magazine said.

But the US turned down the chance three weeks earlier to take the former Khmer Rouge leader into custody, because it had not prepared a legal basis on which to arrest and try him.

The former Cambodian leader, blamed for the deaths of 1 million of his countrymen, is said by the Far Eastern Economic Review to have taken an overdose of tranquillisers and anti-malarial pills at a Khmer Rouge stronghold on the Thai border. He died on 15 April 1998, aged 73.

His associates said he died of a heart attack but within days Thai intelligence sources said it was poison and that it "got into his body with his consent", according to a Reuters report at the time. No autopsy was done before the body was cremated and until now no one had come up with a detailed scenario of the circumstances surrounding the death. Before the cremation the Thai army took samples of hair, skin and fingerprints.

Yesterday's Far Eastern Economic Review article was by Nate Thayer, who has consistently scooped the world on Khmer Rouge reports. According to what he says are impeccable sources, Ta Mok, the one-legged rival Khmer Rouge military commander who captured the ailing Pol Pot and his entourage in 1997, offered to hand him over to the US for trial just before his death.

Mr Thayer said that on 25 March 1998 "the Khmer Rouge made a decision and contacted the Americans to turn him over but the Americans turned them down. They had no legal basis to arrest and detain him".

The Review said Washington scrambled to establish grounds for an arrest and to find a country where a trial could take place for the carnage during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule, but "Brother Number One" was dead before preparations were complete.

He had discovered Ta Mok's plan when listening to a Voice of America radio broadcast, and killed himself, said Mr Thayer. "Pol Pot died of a lethal dose of a combination of Valium and chloroquine."

In the days before the suicide US officials had been consulting Thailand and other countries about capturing him but did not itself plan such a move, according to reports at the time. However, Pol Pot presumably knew he was likely to be captured or handed over to face genocide charges.

The question of an international tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders is very much a live issue at the moment following the surrender last month of two Pol Pot henchmen, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.

Since they gave themselves up they have been given a VIP tour of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and appeared at a press conference at which they said they were sorry for their roles in the deaths under the Khmer Rouge. "Let bygones be bygones," said Khieu Samphan.

The Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, at first hinted that a trial of the two men might not be in the interests of national reconciliation but recently said he supported legal action against the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders.

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