Ieng Sary (C) sits in the courtroom at the Extraodinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia
PHNOM PENH — Lawyers for former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary urged Cambodia's UN-backed court Wednesday to free the elderly war crimes suspect ahead of his genocide trial.
The 85-year-old's defence team argued that his continued detention was illegal because their client's case had not been heard within four months of the issue of the indictment in September, surpassing a court "deadline".
One of the few public faces of the secretive regime, Ieng Sary faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide over the deaths of up to two million people from starvation, overwork and execution in 1975-1979.
He has been hospitalised several times for a heart condition and blood in his urine since his arrest in 2007.
His lawyers called for his "immediate release", or that he be confined to his home in Phnom Penh. He is currently being held at a purpose-built detention facility near the court.
"House arrest will ensure his presence for the trial, will ensure that he doesn't flee the country, and would also ensure that no harm comes to him or to others," argued defence lawyer Michael Karnavas.
But the prosecution said house arrest would be inappropriate, citing Ieng Sary's purported wealth and travel experience and the gravity of his alleged crimes.
"He does pose a flight risk," said assistant prosecutor Dale Lysak.
The other defendants in what is the Khmer Rouge tribunal's second case are his wife Ieng Thirith, "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan.
The trial, due to start in the middle of this year, is expected to be long and complex with all four former leaders disputing the charges against them.
In its landmark first case the tribunal in July sentenced former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav to 30 years in prison. The case is now under appeal.
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime emptied cities in the late 1970s in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
All the accused in the second case are aged between 79 and 85 and suffer from varying ailments, fuelling fears that not all of them will live to see a verdict.