PHNOM PENH - The bail verdict in an increasingly high profile Cambodian espionage case against Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was postponed on Wednesday because the prison delivered him to the court late.
Ricketson, who was charged with espionage after reportedly flying a drone at an opposition rally in Phnom Penh in June, arrived briefly at Cambodia’s Supreme Court only to be ferried back to prison as judges were apparently now busy.
“The transportation was slow, and there are many cases happening at the supreme court today," one of his lawyers, Peung Yok Hiep, explained.
An agitated Ricketson told reporters “Journalism is not espionage” after eventually arriving in a prison van.
"I have a right to free speech according to the Cambodian constitution and I'd like to think my Australian government would defend my right to free speech," he said.
“Which country am I spying for,” he asked.
The Australian has been charged with a provision of the Cambodian Criminal Code that prohibits gathering types of information potentially detrimental to the country with “a view to supplying them to a foreign state” and carries a five to 10 year jail term.
No details have been given about the precise allegations against Ricketson, a divisive figure who has been praised for his generous support of poor families but also amassed plenty of enemies by waging campaigns against civil society organizations he accuses of exploiting the needy.
Uk Kimseth, deputy prosecutor of the Supreme Court and Ly Sophana, deputy prosecutor and spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, also could not be reached.
He has twice been convicted for defamation against such groups and was involved in a bitter, long-running feud with Cambodian Children’s Fund founder Scott Neeson — an Australian philanthropist who Ricketson claims removed children from their families.
Ricketson has also at times strongly criticized the Cambodian government and filmed former opposition leader Sam Rainsy extensively for a political documentary until the party began distancing itself from him several years ago.
Another of Ricketson’s crusades has been to secure the release of British national David Fletcher, a convicted pedophile who he has argued was set up and then abandoned by the British embassy.
The delay of the 68-year-old’s bail verdict until January 31 is a set back for Ricketson’s family, who have watched his health deteriorate inside Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison for more than seven months.
Ricketson’s lawyers say the prosecution was recently granted an additional six months to further investigate the espionage charge against him. They could potentially seek another extension to bring his total pre-trial detention to 18 months.
“It’s obviously difficult for the family every time we are in court and disappointing to have this delay come about today,” said Alexandra Kennett, the partner of Ricketson’s son.
“As I said last week, we are all hopeful for the swiftest resolution to proceedings as possible and we just ask that the evidence be brought forth and that bail either be accepted or denied so that we can continue to move forward and again we are hopeful for the compassion of the Australian and the Cambodian governments in assisting us to bring this to a swift conclusion,” she said.
Pressure for the Australian government to stand up for Ricketson is mounting in Australia, where journalist Peter Greste — who was released from detention in Egypt in 2014 after the intervention of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop — has thrown his support behind the filmmaker.
“Help free another journalist in prison on national security charges. No evidence that James Ricketson in Cambodia is guilty of anything other than caring,” he tweeted in late December, urging followers to sign a petition calling for Ricketson’s release.
That petition, which implores Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney General Christian Porter to intervene, had more than 53,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
On Tuesday, The Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial suggesting the charges against Ricketson were political and calling for the Australian government to step in.
“It is to be hoped the Australian government is not standing back, maintaining [as it has thus far] that all it can offer is low-level "consular assistance. This is no time for official passivity,” the paper wrote.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was continuing to provide consular assistance in accordance with the Consular Services Charter to Ricketson, while ensuring it did not prejudice in any way his current situation, but declined to answer specific questions related to his case, citing privacy obligations.