PHNOM PENH: Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was sentenced to six years in prison by a Cambodian court on Friday (Aug 31) after being found guilty of espionage and collecting information prejudicial to national defence.
Ricketson, 69, had been held in pretrial detention for more than a year since his arrest on June 3, 2017 for flying a photographic drone above a political rally organised by the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
His arrest came amid a wider crackdown on media and political freedom in Cambodia before the Jul 29 national election this year, which was comprehensively won by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.
The filmmaker had been a regular visitor to Cambodia over the past two decades, producing humanitarian films featuring the stories of some of the country’s poorest residents.
Ricketson reacted with incredulity to the verdict of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. "Unbelieveable," he said.
He was accused of spying, but throughout the trial it remained unclear who Ricketson was being accused of spying for.
Following the announcement of the verdict, Ricketson stood up to ask the judges just that, saying, "Which country am I spying for?".
The trial lasted seven days, with time spent on Ricketson’s real intentions, the sources of money that he used to produce several films and his emails with former CNRP officials, including Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.
The prosecution accused him of collecting information for a foreign state since 1995, right up until the day of his arrest and raised a raft a evidence, including personal emails, photos from his smartphone and the content of films he had produced in Cambodia.
Notably, his correspondence under question also featured emails to former CNRP officials and in 2016 to the then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which Ricketson suggested an invitation for Hun Sen to visit Australia be withdrawn. The email was sent from Ricketson’s Gmail account and he claimed he never received any response, that it was whimsical in nature and ludicrous to suggest it was proof of espionage.
In his final conclusion on Wednesday (Aug 29), deputy prosecutor Seang Sok accused Ricketson of using his reporting and humanitarian work for underprivileged families to camouflage his crime.
“The accused pretended to be an expatriate reporter, aiming to collect information about the security situation in Cambodia,” he said.
He also accused Ricketson of filming and producing videos with the intention of stirring discrimination and hatred against Cambodia. They used language in Ricketson’s emails criticising Hun Sen and his rule as proof of this.
“It seems you are saying something bad about the leader and also about the CPP,” Sok said. "It seems it is not playful at all.”
“His intention was to conceal the significance” of the information he gathered, and he “incited hatred to change the government of Cambodia,” he added.
"He came to Cambodia to help the poor. He filmed children at dump sites. Does it jeopardise national defence? It cannot,” said defence lawyer Kong Sam Onn.
Ricketson also suggested he was being tried as for political reasons and said that it appeared the nature of his journalism was on trial.
“Journalism is not a crime and documentary filmmaking should not be confused with espionage,” he said.
“One possible reason for my prosecution is to silence a critic of the government, sending a message to other journalists, both Khmer and non-Khmer.”
Ricketson's family said in a statement released after the verdict that they were devastated by the outcome. "The toll of this result, for James, and our whole family and friends is immense.”
Ricketson has 30 days to appeal. Kong Sam Onn said he would consult with his client first but would consider asking the king for an official pardon, before launching a court appeal.
"In the current situation, we have more hope. We have seen a lot of tolerance from the government to these kind of prisoners of conscience," he said.