Tribunal investigating judge You Bunleng was sworn in as the chief of Appeal's Court Thursday, in an official ceremony that observers worry could further scramble the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders.
As a co-investigator with French judge Marcel Lamonde, You Bunleng occupies a critical position in the special tribunal courts. And now, as Appeals Court chief, he will occupy a critical position within Cambodia's everyday judiciary, a system roundly criticized for corruption and nagging failures to deliver justice.
The two hats put the judge on course to walk a thin line, groups said this week.
You Bunleng replaced an Appeals Court judge ousted after allegations the judge took bribes to exonerate two men found guilty in lower courts on sex crimes.
Cambodian officials said the change of judges was a necessary reform. However, civic groups said the replacement of the Appeals Court chief may amount to another obstacle for the tribunal.
You Bunleng was needed in the Appeals Court and was requested by the Committee to Reform the Judicial System, Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vatana said.
Hisham Mousar, a legal expert who monitors the tribunal for the rights group Adhoc, said the move showed an effort to fight corruption in the judiciary, but it would also create obstacles for the tribunal.
"We undertand the Cambodian government has many worries in reforming the Appeals Court," he said. "But this [appointment] is bad for the independence, justice and international standards of the tribunal. This is a serious problem."
You Bunleng has said he will stay with the tribunal for as long as it needs him.
Hisham Mousar said it was likely he would leave, creating another deadlock in the tribunal process.
The UN, which is sponsoring the trial and providing many of its jurists, said in a statement officials of the world body were concerned over You Bunleng's appointment, especially its threat to "the perceived independence" of the tribunal.
A group of civic organizations is worried You Bunleng's dual roles will he harmful to the tribunal, or that his leaving might delay it further, said Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho.
"We are worried that he could leave the ECCC, and that's going to slow everything down," she said, refering to the tribunal by its official initials.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, called the appointment a "political problem" and urged You Bunleng to decide between posts.
Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath, however, said You Bunleng should consider the additional duty "an honor."