An Australian filmmaker jailed for 6 years for 'spying' in Cambodia after photographing a political rally with a drone

Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)Australian filmmaker James Ricketson arriving in Phnom Penh court during his trial.
  • James Ricketson, 69, was arrested last year in Cambodia for allegedly spying after flying a drone over an opposition rally.
  • The country’s strongman leader, Hun Sen has been in power since 1985 and has a history of cracking down on opposition, with the opposition outlawed ahead of elections in July.
  • International observers considered it a show trial and farce, with a lack of proof and prosecutors not even saying who Ricketson was spying for.

An Australian filmmaker has been sentenced to six years jail for espionage by a Cambodian court, despite the fact that prosecutors did not cite who he was spying for during the trial.

James Ricketson, 69, was arrested in June last year after he used a drone to photograph a rally by the country’s opposition party.

He was charged with endangering national security, but the focus of the trial appeared to be most on his criticisms of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government and his support for the opposition. Human rights groups regard the charges as bogus but typical by the political strongman, who has been in power for 33 years, and is repeatedly condemned internationally for his heavy-handed crackdowns on opponents.

Ricketson, best known for the 1993 film Blackfellas, featuring Jack Charles, John Hargreaves and Ernie Dingo, yelled “Which country am I spying for?” as he was taken away following sentencing.

Hun Sen was recently re-elected for another five year term. His ruling party won all all but two of the parliament’s 125 seats after opposition leader was arrested last September and charged with treason over an alleged US-backed plot to overthrow the government. A speech he made in Australia in 2013 is central to the treason charge.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was subsequently outlawed by a Cambodian court, with senior party leaders banned from politics for five years.

The seemingly flimsy case against Ricketson involved a letter to former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull urging to cancel Hun Sen from visiting Australia, another to Kem Sokha’s predecessor as opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, and photographs of riot police at a protest.

The prosecutor alleged Ricketson’s film career and humanitarian work was being used as a cover for for 12 years of spying between 1995 and 2017.

Acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir was among those who testified to the Phnom Penh court on behalf of Ricketson.

A number of high-profile Australian actors, including Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, Greta Scacchi, Jacqueline McKenzie, and Sam Neill, have called on the Australian government to intervene and bring Ricketson home.

Human Rights Watch said the Australian government should demand his immediate release.

In a statement following the sentence, Ricketson’s daughter, Roxanne Holmes said her father was in poor health and “this is effectively a death sentence”.

“Justice has not been served today. I am in total despair of this court conclusion and sentence of six years,” she said

“There was absolutely no evidence presented that could have led to such a finding by any fair-minded person.”

Ricketson now has has 30 days to appeal.

The country has taken a more lenient stance towards opponents of the government in recent weeks, with more than two dozen jailed critics freed.

In a statement Ricketson said he’d “tried, in my time spent in Cambodia, to support and bring aid to, and be of service to the poor” and his love for the country and its people is heartfelt.

“I have not committed the crime for which I have been sentenced. The evidence presented at my trial did not substantiate this outcome,” he said, thanking friends for their support, as well as “the tens of thousands of Australians” who signed a petition calling for his release.

Ricketson also offered some contrition towards the Hun Sen’s ruling party, saying among his “many failures” the greatest were “that I have misjudged many situations in my time in Cambodia and have perhaps taken liberties that I was not aware were viewed so very differently from how they would be in my home nation, Australia”.

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