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Australian Filmmaker Sentenced to 6 Years in Cambodia Prison

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson speaks from a prisoner van outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 31, 2018.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson has been sentenced to six years in jail by a Cambodian court for espionage despite the prosecution's failure to even identify the country for which he was allegedly spying.

The 69-year-old raised his arms in court and said "unbelievable" after the judges handed down their ruling — a decision for which they offered no justification.

"Please tell me which country I was spying for," he said, a question he has raised again and again throughout the course of the 14-month ordeal since his arrest.

Ricketson, who was detained the day after he flew a drone at an opposition rally, was convicted under a vague provision of the Cambodian law which forbids the collection of information harmful to the national defense.

In a Cambodian government-produced pre-election propaganda video, he was painted as one of the players in a vast international conspiracy to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen through a "color revolution" backed by the likes of George Soros and the United States.

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The same narrative was used as the justification for banning the country's main opposition party and jailing its leader, Kem Sokha, in a crackdown that saw critics of the government arrested ahead of the July 29 election.

Ricketson, who has filmed in Cambodia for 22 years focusing largely on the plight of impoverished street children, had at times expressed strong criticisms of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.

Reaction from family

Outside court, Ricketson's son Jesse said the result would "send shockwaves out through all of our family and our community and all of James' supporters."

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, right, is helped off a prisoner truck upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 29, 2018.
Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, right, is helped off a prisoner truck upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 29, 2018.

"And it's a really long, hard road to this point and now to get this result is just heartbreaking," he said. "I feel so much for my father right now, he'd be feeling it really strongly and who knows what comes next and it's just devastating."

He said the family was unsure what steps to take next yet but were "hoping and praying for generosity and leniency and compassion to be shown."

Ricketson's Lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, said the court had very little evidence to convict his client but that he would seek a pardon before pursuing a legal appeal.

"If we get a pardon from the king, this appeal is abandoned and we do not have to continue to sue again. In the current situation, we can hope so much, we see a great deal of favor from the government for such prisoners of conscience," he said.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the verdict was politically predetermined requiring a "staunch public defense, not deference to a judicial system that is politically captured."

"From day one, James Ricketson has been a scapegoat in Hun Sen's false narrative of a so-called 'color revolution' used as an excuse to crack down on the political opposition and civil society critics," the statement said. "The sad part is the Australian government just let Cambodia walk all over them by failing to publicly and consistently challenge this ludicrous charade and demand Ricketson's immediate and unconditional release."

Cambodia response

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan rejected the criticism.

"It is just another smear by Human Rights Watch against the Cambodian judicial system with every single case is labeled [by HRW] as politically motivated. They ignore the fundamental basis of the judicial system here which rely on factual and legal bases. We now stop paying attention on what [the HRW] says because they lack qualification to be civilized persons of integrity."

Prosecutor Sieng Sok argued throughout the seven-day trial that Ricketson had used profits from his documentaries over the past 22 years that he had been visiting Cambodia to fund his spying.

He also presented a series of emails — seized from Ricketson's computer after he was arrested — to figures such as former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and recently ousted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as further evidence of his spying.

In the letter to Turnbull, Ricketson urged the then PM to cut aid to Cambodia and refrain from welcoming Hun Sen into Australia, citing examples of the premier's autocratic behavior.

'Support' from Australia

The Australian government has refrained from applying any public pressure on Ricketson's behalf, though former minister for foreign affairs Julie Bishop did write to the Cambodian government expressing concerns about the case earlier this year.

On a visit to Jakarta, newly installed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Ricketson could expect "all the consular and other support from the Australian government you'd expect in these circumstances."

"And I think, as usual in these types of events, it's best I think to deal with these things calmly and directly and in a way that best assists a citizen," he said.

In 2014, Morrison, then the immigration minister, signed a controversial deal in Phnom Penh giving the Cambodian government tens of millions of dollars in aid in return for resettling refugees Australia refused to accept.

Ultimately only a handful were let in to the country in a deal critics said had effectively gagged the Australian government from criticizing Hun Sen's human rights abuses.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne raised no concerns with the handling of the case in a statement released shortly after the verdict, instead stressing that Ricketson needed to consider any response using the "avenues open to him under Cambodian law."

Almost 20 people considered prisoners of conscience by rights groups have been pardoned in the past two weeks at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen, following his party's effectively uncontested domination of last month's election.

On Thursday, though, former Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha's pre-trial detention was extended to 18 months after Hun Sen said treason was an offense for which he could not seek a pardon.