Khmer Rouge tribunal co-investigating judge You Bunleng is to replace Ly Vuochleng as president of the Appeals Court under a royal decree issued by King Norodom Sihamoni on Thursday, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said Sunday.
Ang Vong Vathana added that Ly Vuochleng was dismissed because she had been implicated in a corruption scandal involving the controversial Chai Hour II hotel human trafficking case.
“She was removed because she was involved with the Chai Hour II case,” he said.
The reshuffling calls into question You Bunleng’s future at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
You Bunleng said Sunday that he had been informed of the appointment but would not make a final decision on whether to step down from his ECCC position until after he received an official copy of the royal decree from the Ministry of Justice, which he expects today.
But he said that his continued tenure at the tribunal was unlikely. “These are two big jobs. I cannot do two jobs at the same time,” You Bunleng said, adding that he felt compelled to abide by the royal decree. “I must accept the appointment.”
The tribunal’s co-investigating judges have just begun their investigative work in earnest. Last month, tribunal co-prosecutors handed over case files on five suspects to the co-investigating judges who, on July 31, brought the first of those suspects—S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Ieu, also known as Duch—in for questioning and charged him with crimes against humanity.
French co-investigating judge Marcel Lemonde said Sunday that he had yet to receive official confirmation of You Bunleng’s new appointment.
“If it’s confirmed, it could be a very serious problem,” Lemonde said, declining to comment further.
ECCC Public Affairs Chief Helen Jarvis declined comment Sunday.
Theary Seng, the director of the Center for Social Development, said Sunday she feared that You Bunleng’s departure, if realized, would further delay the work of the tribunal. “It’s important that we proceed with the momentum we have now,” she said.
You Bunleng said that, if he did decide to leave the tribunal, he would work with his replacement—reserve co-investigating judge Thong Ol—to ease the transition. “I cannot leave [the tribunal] right away,” he said.
Thong Ol, currently a judge at Kompong Cham Provincial Court, has been criticized by rights groups for his past judicial record.
In 2000, he acquitted former Khmer Rouge commander turned RCAF colonel Chhouk Rin who had been accused of leading an attack on a train in July 1994, killing 13 Cambodian passengers and three Western backpackers.
Thong Ol reportedly made his decision to acquit on the grounds that former Khmer Rouge members who turned themselves in had legal amnesty for crimes committed while in the service of the Khmer Rouge.
Rights group Licadho has also criticized Thong Ol for placing independent radio journalist Mam Sonando in pretrial detention for allegedly defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Sunday he hoped that, if Thong Ol does replace You Bunleng, he would build on the work already underway at the court.
“Whatever his background, he is in a good position to start: Something has been built for him already,” Youk Chhang said, adding that Thong Ol would perhaps “take the opportunity to improve his record and see things differently.” Thong Ol could not be reached for comment Sunday.
You Bunleng said he was happy with his appointment to the Appeals Court and promised to reform the beleaguered institution, though he declined to detail his reform agenda. “I am happy with the appointment but at the same time I am concerned about my new responsibilities. I will reform the institution,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Deputy Director Ke Sakhorn said Sunday that an Interior Ministry investigation had implicated outgoing Appeals Court director Ly Vuochleng in accepting bribes to release two men involved in the controversial Chai Hour II human trafficking case.
In December 2004, anti-trafficking police raided the Chai Hour II hotel and sent 83 women and girls they found inside the Tuol Kok district hotel to a shelter run by the NGO Afesip. The next day, some 30 men forced open the gates of the shelter and removed the sex workers.
In February 2006, Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced the hotel owner Te Pao Ly to five years in prison and hotel manager Som Leang to four years on trafficking-related charges.
The Appeals Court overturned those convictions, and both men were arrested again on human trafficking charges in February of this year, prompting Prime Minister Hun Sen to call for an investigation into the Appeals Court decision.
Ke Sakhorn said Sunday that an Interior Ministry investigation found that Te Pao Ly’s father, 63-year-old Chhun Poch, had given Appeals Court officials—including Ly Vuochleng—$30,000 to release the two men. “According to the police reports, witnesses claimed that she accepted bribes,” Ke Sakhorn said.
The Municipal Court on Saturday detained Chhun Poch for questioning and charged him with bribery, Ke Sakhorn added.
Ly Vuochleng could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Appeals Court Judge Thou Mony, who also serves as a judge in the trial chamber of the ECCC, issued the verdict to release Te Pao Ly and Som Leang. He denied that he had accepted any bribes, and said that he believed Ly Vuochleng’s removal was not related to the Chai Hour II case. “I think the two cases are separate,” he said, but declined to speculate on the reasons for his boss’ departure.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he was not aware of the details of the reshuffling, but that such decisions by royal decree are not uncommon. Ly Vuochleng, he said, “has been in the position for a long time.”