Australian filmmaker sentenced to six years in Cambodian jail for spying
An Australian filmmaker arrested after flying a drone to photograph a Cambodian opposition party rally last year has been sentenced to six years in prison.
Prosecutors have indicated James Ricketson was suspected of working with the opposition party or had worked directly for a foreign power, though that country was never specified in court.
The charge against him, endangering national security, was tantamount in legal terms to espionage.
As the prison van left after the panel of judges delivered the verdict, Ricketson shouted to reporters the same question he often raised throughout his trial: “Who am I spying for?”
Before hearing the verdict, he said that based on the evidence and facts in the case, he should be set free.
Ricketson, 69, repeatedly insisted he had no political agenda and his work making documentary films was journalistic in nature.
Australian filmmaker James Ricketson holds a book with the title of “The Faithful spy” upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court (Heng Sinith/AP)
Character witnesses testified to his filmmaking work and financial generosity to several poor Cambodians.
The evidence presented against Ricketson appeared thin, but Cambodia’s courts are considered highly politicised and their rulings often tightly align with the ruling party’s agenda.
A handful of personal emails seized from Ricketson suggested he was sympathetic to the country’s political opposition and critical of Hun Sen’s government, but revealed no sensitive or secret information.
“Since he arrived in Cambodia, the accused person has been collecting political, social and economic information about Cambodia and sending it to a foreign state,” prosecutor Sieng Sok said in his closing argument on Wednesday.
“He has kept collecting this information for 22 years, until the day he was arrested. The accused person was using his journalism job and helping poor Cambodians just to hide his real work, but in fact he is a spy and has been filming at the sites of the country’s security forces.”
The prosecutors had indicated Ricketson also was suspected of working with the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which for a time had enough popularity among Cambodians to be a viable challenger to Hun Sen’s rule.
The party’s dissolution by a court ruling last year assured Hun Sen’s party of its sweeping victory in the July general elections, which returned Hun Sen to office for five more years.
Ricketson testified in his defence that he made contacts with the opposition party strictly for journalistic purposes while making a documentary film. He recounted a filmmaking career dating to the 1970s, and presented acclaimed Australian movie director Peter Weir to attest to his professionalism in the field.
Throughout his trial, Ricketson shouted brief but defiant remarks to reporters as he was led in and out of the court building for each hearing.
He decried the paucity of evidence and repeatedly asked the taunting question of what country he was supposed to have been spying for.
At one point, however, he took a tried-and-true approach in trying to earn clemency by expressing contrition.
In a July 1 letter addressed to Hun Sen and published in a pro-government newspaper, he wrote: “May I please, respectfully, send my sincerest apologies to yourself and the Cambodian Government. I now realise that my statements I have made in the press and other media are disruptive and ill-informed.
“These statements were made from a place of foreign naivety and ignorance about the complexities and difficulties of governing Cambodia,” he wrote.
“I apologise unreservedly and without condition for any distress I may have caused as a result of my ignorance of Cambodian issues. If there is anything I can do to remedy my mistake, please let me know as I only want the best for you and Cambodia,” the letter said.
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