Australian film-maker James Ricketson has been found guilty of espionage in Cambodia and sentenced to six years in jail.
His family say they are devastated at his conviction and sentence, and have called on the Australian government to pressure Cambodia to release him.
Ricketson, 69, said he had worked as a journalist and video documenter in the south-east Asian country since 1995 and was arrested in June 2017 for flying a drone at a political rally. He has been incarcerated since then, with the guilty verdict given this morning by a three-judge panel in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Prosecutors said Ricketson used journalism as a front for spying, citing links to former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Cambodian National Rescue party (CNRP).
The CNRP was Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s party’s (CPP) main political opposition until it was dissolved last November.
The prosecution also accused Ricketson of treason, saying he planned to overthrow Hun and illegally give information to foreign governments.
Prosecutors did not name the states he was alleged to have colluded with despite Ricketson repeatedly asking them to do so during his trial.
Ricketson, who made films about poverty and financially supported poor Cambodians he befriended, called the spy claims “fanciful and ludicrous”. His lawyer, Kong Sam Oun, said: “James has done a lot of good here, nothing to do with spying. It is impossible to be a spy for 22 years.”
Before the verdict was given this morning Ricketson said: “I hope I am free today and I could go home.”
Bim Ricketson, James’ nephew, said his family was devastated. He said his uncle was a part of the Cambodian community and loved the country’s people.
“He goes there regularly and has done for 22 years. Capturing the lives of the poor people there and helping them. And for that to be interpreted somehow as espionage is completely mad.”
“There’s no way he is a spy.”
Bim Ricketson said the family was relying on the Australian government to pressure Cambodia to release him.
“We are looking for a lot more support moving forward from the new Australian government. We know … they have their attention on this and that they are working on it but now really is the time for a lot of support to be shown and as much pressure as possible to be brought to it, to find some kind of way out of this.
“We are looking forward to what the government can do to help us at this point. There is a lot I’m sure that can be done and they are in contact with us.”
Ricketson’s family said his health had deteriorated badly over 14 months in prison, and “we would be very concerned about his health over six years in those conditions”.
“I don’t know where we go from here,” Ricketson’s brother said.
Speaking from Jakarta, prime minister Scott Morrison said the former foreign minister Julie Bishop had made direct approaches to the Cambodian government, and said the government would remain involved in Ricketson’s case.
“It is best to deal with these things calmly and directly,” Morrison said.
“He can expect to give all the consular and other support from the government you would expect in these circumstances.”
Foreign minister Marise Payne said the Australian government would continue to provide Ricketson full consular assistance during this “particularly stressful time”. She said there were still appeal avenues open to the Australian citizen.
“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.
“The Australian government will consider what further appropriate support we can provide after that time.”
The Cambodian prime minister, who in July won a landslide victory in an election decried as undemocratic by critics, has orchestrated an intense crackdown on free speech and the media in Cambodia.
In the past two weeks Hun released around 20 political opponents jailed on what critics claimed were political charges, a move that Ricketson’s supporters hoped increased the chances of him being freed.
He has closed newspapers and overseen the jailing of journalists, politicians and social media commenters deemed to threaten government rule.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson condemned the Australian government’s “softly-quietly” approach towards Cambodia, and other autocratic regimes in south-east Asia, arguing it was not only morally bankrupt but also entirely ineffective.
“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.”
Robertson said Ricketson’s trial and sentence “exposed everything that’s wrong with the Cambodian judicial system”.
He said court cases in Cambodia were characterised by ridiculously excessive charges, prosecutors with little or no evidence, and judges carrying out political orders from the government rather than ruling based on what happens in court.
“When it comes to a conviction in a Cambodian court, clearly no facts are required. From day one, James Ricketson has been a scapegoat in Hun Sen’s false narrative of a so-called ‘colour revolution’ used as an excuse to crack down on the political opposition and civil society critics.”
The Australian Directors Guild has also called on the Australian government to intervene on Ricketson’s behalf to have him brought home to Australia.
“We call on the new foreign minister, Marise Payne, to contact her counterpart in Cambodia and seek clemency for James and for him to be sent home,” chief executive Kingston Anderson said. “Based on the evidence and what we know of James we do not believe he was spying for anyone.”