Ieng Sary served as foreign minister in Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime. He and his wife Ieng Thirith were brought before the country's U.N.-backed genocide tribunal to face charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs in the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge government, were served with arrest warrants at dawn at their residence in the capital, Phnom Penh, and driven to the tribunal's office. They are being held overnight pending further questioning.
They became the third and fourth people to be arrested by the tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
The radical policies of the communist Khmer Rouge are widely blamed for the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution. None of the group's leaders has faced trial yet.
The arrests come almost three decades after the Khmer Rouge fell from power, with many fearing the aging suspects may die before they ever see a courtroom. Trials are expected to begin next year.
At a trial conducted in 1979 under the auspices of Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Sary was sentenced to death in absentia. But the proceedings, in the fashion of a Soviet show trial, served the purposes of propaganda more than justice.
The U.N.-assisted tribunal was created last year after seven years of contentious negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen, once a Khmer Rouge officer himself, asked for U.N help with a trial only in 1997, after enlisting surrendered Khmer Rouge officials as his political allies. Critics accused him of delaying a trial for fear it could upset the political equilibrium.
Ieng Sary and his wife were members of the inner circle of the Khmer Rouge. They were French-educated like its charismatic leader, the late Pol Pot, whose radicalism turned the country into a virtual charnel house. The connection was linked by marriage: Ieng Thirith's sister Khieu Ponnary was Pol Pot's first wife.
Besides being deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Ieng Sary was a member of the policy-making central committee.
He has also been accused of being personally responsible for luring home diplomats and intellectuals from overseas to join the revolution after the 1975 Khmer Rouge victory over a pro-U.S. government. The returnees were arrested and put in re-education camps, and most were later executed.
Ieng Sary "promoted, instigated, facilitated, encouraged and/or condoned the perpetration of the crimes" when the Khmer Rouge held power, according to a July 18 document presented by the tribunal's prosecutors to its investigating judges. The tribunal is being conducted under Cambodian law, which follows the French model.
The document said there was evidence of Ieng Sary's participation in crimes included planning, directing and coordinating Khmer Rouge "policies of forcible transfer, forced labor and unlawful killings."
"I have done nothing wrong," Ieng Sary, 77, told The AP in October while visiting Bangkok, Thailand, for a medical checkup.
"I am a gentle person. I believe in good deeds. I even made good deeds to save several people's lives (during the regime). But let them (the tribunal) find what the truth is," he said, without elaborating.
The alleged crimes of his wife, Ieng Thirith, who is believed to be 75, include her participation in "planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges ... and unlawful killing or murder of staff members from within the Ministry of Social Affairs," the prosecutors' filing said.
When the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979, Ieng Sary retreated with them to the jungles, from where they conducted a guerrilla war. In 1996, with the group's forces in sharp decline, Ieng Sary defected with a large coterie of followers, effectively setting the stage for the total collapse of the Khmer Rouge two years later.
His belated turn of heart earned him a limited amnesty from then-King Norodom Sihanouk - but one that officials have declared does not apply to the tribunal's charges.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent group documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities, said that prior to his arrest, Ieng Sary had been "the most politically untouchable Khmer Rouge leader."
The other Khmer Rouge members in the tribunal's custody are Nuon Chea, the group's former ideologist, and Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who headed the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture center. They were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity earlier this year.
According to the prosecutors' papers, the fifth suspect they seek to charge is Khieu Samphan, who was the nominal head of state during the Khmer Rouge rule.