PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The U.N.-backed genocide tribunal in Cambodia arrested the former Khmer Rouge head of state Monday following his release from a hospital in the capital, officials said.
Khieu Samphan's arrest makes him the fifth senior Khmer Rouge official to be detained ahead of the long-delayed tribunal that is expected to begin next year.
The arrests come almost three decades after the group fell from power, with many fearing the aging suspects might die before they ever see a courtroom.
Police escorted Khieu Samphan from the hospital Monday, holding his arms for support, and led him to a police car that sped away in a convoy of about a half dozen police vehicles before tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath confirmed the arrest.
Khieu Samphan had been admitted to the hospital last Wednesday after suffering a stroke.
His arrest by the U.N.-backed tribunal had been widely expected. The tribunal already has arrested four of his colleagues to face trial for atrocities during the regime's 1975-79 rule that led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people.
Khieu Samphan has repeatedly denied responsibility for any atrocities. In a book published last week, he defended many of the policies of the ultra-communists although he has admitted that some killings took place.
He claimed he was awaken to the reality of his regime's brutality only after watching a 2003 documentary about the Khmer Rouge S-21 prison, where as many as 16,000 people are believed to have passed through its gates before being taken for execution. Only about a dozen are thought to have survived.
"When I saw the film, it was hard for me to deny (the killings). There's no more doubt left," Khieu Samphan said in an AP interview then.
"Everything has to go the trial's way now, and there's no other way," he said. "But I also want the public to understand about me, too. I was not involved in any killings."
The U.N.-assisted tribunal was created last year after seven years of contentious negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia.
A week ago, authorities arrested Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge's ex-foreign minister, and his wife Ieng Thirith, its social affairs minister. Both were charged with crimes against humanity; Ieng Sary also was charged with war crimes.
Two other suspects — former Khmer Rouge ideologist Nuon Chea and Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who headed the group's S-21 torture center — were detained earlier this year on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Associated Press Writer Ker Munthit contributed to this report.