Australian filmmaker James Ricketson talks from inside a prisoner truck upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 29, 2018.
Australian filmmaker James Ricketson talks from inside a prisoner truck upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 29, 2018.

A judge in Cambodia has convicted Australian filmmaker James Ricketson of spying and sentenced him to 6 years in prison,

Ricketson faced a charge of violating national security, which carries up to 10 years in prison, when he arrived at a Cambodian court to hear his verdict Friday.

Cambodia has released almost two dozen jailed critics or opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government in recent weeks, raising hopes that Ricketson may also be freed.

He arrived alone to the Phnom Penh court in a prison van, later telling The Associated Press from a waiting room, “I hope I am free today and I could go home.”

Photographing opposition rally 

Ricketson, 69, has been held since June last year when he was detained after flying a drone to photograph an opposition party political rally.

The charge against Ricketson is tantamount in legal terms to espionage, but prosecutors never specified which foreign power he allegedly spied for.

The leniency shown to opponents and critics following the July election followed a pattern of Hun Sen’s long rule, with a harsh crackdown on opponents and critics preceding the vote and royal pardons, clemency and conciliatory moves after he wins a resounding victory.

The evidence presented against Ricketson appeared thin. 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. Several of his photos and videos showed security forces on duty, but only in publicly viewable situations.

Making a documentary

Questions and statements from the prosecutors at his trial indicated Ricketson 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, however, was dissolved by a court ruling last November that assured Hun Sen’s party of its sweeping victory.

Ricketson testified in his defense 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.

Ricketson’s other character witnesses were several Cambodians, including his informally adopted daughter, who described how he had provided financial assistance to them and other poor members of Cambodian society.