Citing “personal and family reasons,” Khmer Rouge tribunal international prosecutor Robert Petit on Tuesday announced his resignation, bringing to a close a three-year term during which an attempt to broaden the scope of Khmer Rouge prosecutions drew the ire of the prime minister.
Effective Sept 1, the resignation will end what has been the senior-most position in Mr Petit’s 20-year career spanning four war crimes tribunals in Africa and Asia.
Mr Petit leaves behind an unresolved dispute over the legally and politically acceptable number of Khmer Rouge suspects that will be prosecuted by the tribunal, as well as ongoing investigations and the court’s first trial.
In a statement to the media, Mr Petit said his decision to leave the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia had been reached after lengthy deliberations and was made with “the deepest regret.”
“It has been the greatest privilege of my career to have the opportunity to bring some justice to the victims of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” Mr Petit’s statement said.
“I remain convinced that Cambodia’s hopes for a better future lie, in part, on true accountability for crimes,” he added.
Mr Petit said UN Deputy Co-Prosecutor William Smith is to act in his absence during the process of selecting a replacement.
He made no mention of Paul Coffey, a former organized crime prosecutor in the US Department of Justice who was named as Mr Petit’s reserve in 2006.
Lars Olsen, a UN spokesman for the tribunal, referred all questions to a press conference to be given today by Mr Petit.
Mr Petit’s tenure at the tribunal saw the start of the first ever criminal prosecution of a communist regime and the arrest and detention of five suspects: the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s deputy secretary Nuon Chea, Democratic Kampuchea’s Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, its head of state, Khieu Samphan, its Social Action Minister, Ieng Thirith, and its secret police chairman, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.
Mr Petit appeared to inspire admiration among some of those working under him.
However, sharp differences of legal opinion quickly arose with the court’s Office of the Co-Investigating Judges, culminating in a prosecution appeal against the investigators’ indictment of Duch, a move that delayed the start of trial by six months but failed to achieve its principal goal, which was to modify the forms of liability held against the accused.
Mr Petit said in November, before the appeal was decided, that such legal differences were “exactly how a credible and efficient legal system is supposed to work.”
At most of the world’s war crimes courts, prosecutors are themselves accustomed to conducting investigations, a task that at the ECCC is instead entrusted to the co-investigating judges.
Mr Petit’s brief tenures at tribunals in Sierra Leone and East Timor-after his appointment in 2002, he left the serious crimes unit of the UN Mission of Assistance in East Timor after only one year-also earned him a reputation among some tribunal officials for hasty departures.
However, it is his disagreement with his Cambodian colleague Chea Leang that has cast the greatest doubt on the success of the Khmer Rouge trials.
Believing that evidence shows that six more individuals fall within the tribunal’s mandate to try senior leaders and those most responsible for Khmer Rouge atrocities, Mr Petit sought the arbitration of pretrial judges to overcome the opposition of Ms Leang to further prosecutions.
The week before Mr Petit filed his notice of disagreement with Ms Leang on Nov 18, one of those six suspects, former Khmer Rouge Commerce Minister Van Rith, 73, died at his Kandal province home.
Ms Leang’s thin legal arguments for opposing further prosecutions, as well as statements by Cambodian officials including Prime Minister Hun Sen that no more than five suspects will be tried, have drawn strong and widely held criticism that the government is trying to prevent Mr Petit’s additional prosecutions.
Dutch lawyers for Nuon Chea on Tuesday for the second time this month wrote to Mr Petit, seeking a response to their allegation that Mr Petit was fully aware that Ms Leang is acting on government instructions, but had failed to notify other parties to the investigations and trial of this situation.
Ms Leang, who has repeatedly denied suffering any undue political pressure, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Anne Heindel, a legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Tuesday that she was most concerned by the recent departures at the prosecutor’s office, which she said represented a loss of “institutional knowledge.”
Senior Assistant Prosecutor Alex Bates departed at the end of last month while Assistant Prosecutor Stuart Ford left the tribunal in the middle of this month.
Mr Petit’s departure could reduce the number of prosecutors with detailed knowledge of the complex cases and facts at hand, Ms Heindel said.
Francois Roux, a French lawyer who is currently defending Duch at trial, declined to comment on the resignation. However Michael Karnavas, an American lawyer for Ieng Sary, wrote by e-mail on Tuesday that Mr Petit’s announcement did not say enough about his reasons for leaving.
“I would have welcomed a more complete explanation,” he said.