Australian filmmaker jailed for six years for Cambodia ‘espionage’


Australian filmmaker James Ricketson reacts as he attempts to speak to journalists from a prison vehicle after his verdict at the Phnom Penh court on August 31, 2018. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

An Australian filmmaker was sentenced to six years in prison on Friday after being convicted of espionage in Cambodia in a case that Human Rights Watch slammed as a "ludicrous charade".

James Ricketson has been held in jail since his arrest in June last year after he flew a drone over a rally held by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was effectively banned months later.

The CNRP's dissolution paved the way for strongman premier Hun Sen to win a clean sweep of all parliamentary seats in July's national election, which Western democracies have said was flawed in the absence of any viable opposition.

After a six-day trial, Judge Seng Leang found the 69-year-old Ricketson guilty on two charges of espionage.

"We have decided to convict (him) to six years in prison for espionage and collecting harmful information that could affect national defence," he said, without giving any details of which country he was allegedly spying for.

The prosecution had accused Ricketson of working as a filmmaker in Cambodia for years as a front for spying.

"Unbelievable -- which country am I spying for?" Ricketson asked out loud in court.

His lawyer Kong Sam Onn told reporters waiting outside the court there was "little evidence" to convict his client and that he plans to request a royal pardon from the Cambodian king. 

Earlier this week 14 opposition lawmakers and activists jailed before the election were released after sending apology letters to Hun Sen, which the premier said he sent on to the monarch.

- 'Scapegoat' –

Calling the result "devastating", Ricketson's son Jesse said he could not comment on whether an apology letter to Hun Sen was forthcoming to secure his father's release.

"We'll need some time to get ourselves together and work out what to do next. Obviously, we won't be giving up," the younger Ricketson said. "The human toll of this situation is really hard for everyone... I feel so much for my father right now."

Andrea Giorgetti, Asia director for the International Federation for Human Rights, said that Ricketson's conviction stemmed from "baseless charges". 

"The imprisonment of Mr. Ricketson after the slew of recent releases of Hun Sen's political opponents shows that the revolving door of political prisoners keeps spinning in Cambodia," Giorgetti told AFP. 

Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson decried the court's findings on Friday, saying that the trial "exposed everything that's wrong with the Cambodian judicial system".

Robertson said the Australian was used as a "scapegoat" by the government to crack down on political opposition. 

He also criticised what he said was inaction by the Australian government in "failing to publicly and consistently challenge this ludicrous charade and demand Ricketson's immediate and unconditional release."

Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said the government "continues to provide Mr Ricketson full consular assistance" but offered no criticism of the verdict.

"Mr. Ricketson is subject to legal proceedings under Cambodian law and must now consider his response to the court's decision using the avenues open to him under Cambodian law," she said.

In the months leading up to the election, the Hun Sen-backed government cracked down on opposition lawmakers, journalists and activists. 

Ricketson has faced legal problems in the past. He was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence in 2014 for allegedly threatening to broadcast allegations that a church working in Cambodia had sold children.

Two years later, he was fined after a court found him guilty of defaming an anti-paedophile NGO by accusing the group of manipulating witnesses.

AFP

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