Cambodia's war crimes court ruled Friday that Pol Pot's former deputy Nuon Chea was fit to continue standing trial after the death of a co-defendant renewed fears that the elderly accused may not live to see verdicts.
"The accused Nuon Chea is fit to stand trial," Judge Nil Nonn
said at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge war crimes court after speaking with medical experts.
Despite the defendant's "advancing age and frailty", he said, he "remains capable of meaningful participation in his own defence".
Nuon Chea, 86, the most senior surviving leader of the genocidal communist regime which oversaw the "Killing Fields" era in the late 1970s, did not attend the hearing due to poor health, a clerk told the court.
He is on trial with former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, 81, over war crimes and genocide charges.
They include the forced movement of people – a policy of the brutal regime which emptied Cambodia's cities – and the execution of up to 3,000 former military officers found in mass graves in western Cambodia.
The pair deny charges.
The death on March 14 of regime co-founder Ieng Sary at the age of 87 intensified fears that the surviving pair may also die before verdicts can be reached in their trial, which began in June 2011.
Ieng Sary's widow Ieng Thirith, the regime's former social affairs minister, was freed in September after being deemed unfit for trial due to dementia.
Nuon Chea has suffered a number of illnesses, including high blood pressure, acute bronchitis and heart disease, prompting his defence team to argue that their client was too weak to stand trial.
The tribunal has been dogged by funding shortages since it was set up in 2006 and was hit by a strike by local staff earlier this month over unpaid wages.
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79 wiped out nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population through starvation, overwork or execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.