Nuon Chea, who served as Pol Pot's chief lieutenant during Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, has died at 93, according to a U.N. tribunal which found him guilty last year of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He was known as "Brother No. 2" after Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Nuon Chea was considered one of the chief architects of the regime's campaign to forcibly restructure the country along agrarian lines – a policy that led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people through executions, starvation, disease and overwork.
"We can confirm that Nuon Chea, 93, passed away on Sunday evening at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital. He had been treated at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia's detention centre before being transferred to the hospital for medical treatment on July 2," ECCC spokesman Neth Pheaktra was quoted by The Phnom Penh Post as saying.
Nuon Chea, along with the Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan, were found guilty in November of genocide by the United Nations-assisted tribunal. During last year's trial, where he was sentenced to life in prison, Nuon Chea was reportedly suffering unspecified heart problems and high blood pressure.
Nuon Chea never fully admitted his guilt. "I wasn't a war criminal," he told The Associated Press in a 2004 interview. "I admit that there was a mistake. But I had my ideology. I wanted to free my country. I wanted people to have well-being."
In 2007, he was arrested along with other Khmer Rouge leaders.
In 2011, during his years-long trial, Nuon Chea insisted that he and others in the Khmer Rouge had acted in what they believed to be the best interests of the country. "I don't want the next generation to misunderstand history," he said. "I don't want them to believe the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals."
"Nothing is true about that," he added.
However, in 2013 testimony, he did acknowledge some degree of responsibility for the slaughter. Khieu Samphan, now 88, also expressed sorrow over the regime's excesses, but maintained that he was unaware of the worst of them.
The Khmer Rouge came to power in the wake of the Vietnam War, which destabilized the region and opened the door to a coup that overthrew a weak military government in Cambodia. Pol Pot was inspired by the harsh collectivist policies of Chinese leader Mao Zedong and sought to replicated them in Cambodia, dispatching dissenters in the country's notorious "killing fields."
In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and pushed Pol Pot and his remaining followers into the jungle, where they fought an unsuccessful insurgency for the next two decades. Pol Pot died in 1998.