Many of those who know Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, this writer included, have varying opinions of the man.

Some say he’s a nice old guy trying to help poor Cambodians; others say he’s a dedicated and talented documentary film maker; and quite a few others see him as an out and out pest. However, they all agree on one thing: Ricketson is not a government spy.

But that’s how Cambodia’s politicized courts see him. On August 30, a judge sentenced Ricketson to six years in jail on charges of espionage that deemed the rambling 69-year-old Australian a modern day sort of James Bond – minus the suit, hair and good looks. It ruled he worked for a foreign power to undermine the government and cause chaos in the country.

The court, however, neglected to mention for which country Ricketson was supposedly spying. The evidence presented against him at the trial was at best flimsy. State prosecutor Seang Sok did not call any witnesses, could not name a single victim of Ricketson’s alleged activities and could not prove he was paid by anyone to carry out his “espionage.”

Most of the information investigators found on Ricketson’s computer and which was presented to the court as “evidence” were already public knowledge. No official secrets or classified information were found.

There were, however, emails from Ricketson to senior members of the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) before it was dissolved last November by the same politicized justice system that sentenced him to prison.

The ruling against the CNRP effectively barred it from contesting the July 29 election won handily by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on April 13, 2018.Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address, April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Showing support for a political party or its leader, and even offering your services as a journalist and filmmaker to help them win power at the ballot box, as Ricketson did, is not a crime. If it was, prisons the world over would be overflowing with journalists and filmmakers.

Since July’s national elections, Cambodia has become a one-party dictatorship, and any criticism or derogatory comments about the government can land those making them in jail. The fact that Ricketson had been in contact with former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and others in the now dissolved party apparently swayed the judge’s decision against him.

Ricketson, who has spent 22 year in Cambodia, was arrested in June 2017 after flying his drone over an opposition rally that took photos of a heavy security presence at the event. Local media ran similar photos –  the newspaper I worked for at the time did, too.

Ricketson was held for more than a year in pre-trial detention at the notorious Prey Sar Prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, by all accounts not a place for the faint-hearted. The prison is overcrowded and inmates are forced to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on the concrete floors in their cells.

Ventilation is poor, there are few fans, the food is subsistence-level at best and drinking water has to be purchased. A friend in Phnom Penh spent several months locked up in Prey Sar a few years ago on trumped up charges he eventually beat and said one of the worst things he experienced was the cockroaches crawling over his face while he tried to sleep.

Director plays a starring role

Ricketson has sometimes been a cantankerous and obsessive type, characteristics that made him plenty of enemies. But while he had his detractors in Cambodia and Australia, he also had a large number of supporters.

In the past year since his arrest, more than 70,000 people signed a petition asking the Australian government to intervene in his case. Many in the Australian film industry who knew Ricketson and his work signed the petition.

Among Ricketson’s army of supporters was acclaimed Australian film director Peter Weir, who took the stand in the Phnom Penh court during the trial to give Ricketson a character reference.

The director of movies such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, Green Card and many others told the court Ricketson had been his student in a filmmaking class and he had known him for decades. He stressed Ricketson was not a spy or involved in espionage.

Hollywood director Peter Weir (R) leaves the court in Phnom Penh after testifying in the trial of detained Australian filmmaker James Ricketson on August 16, 2018 accompanied by Alexandra Kennett the partner of Ricketson's son Jesse Ricketson.Hollywood director Peter Weir made a surprise appearance at a court in the Cambodian capital on Thursday, testifying in the trial of a filmmaker accused of espionage, the latest twist in a case decried by rights groups as "bogus". / AFP PHOTO / Suy SE
Hollywood director Peter Weir (R) leaves the court in Phnom Penh after testifying in the trial of detained Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, August 16, 2018. Photo: AFP/Suy Se

Then foreign minister Julie Bishop’s feeble response to the petition was to send a letter to the Cambodian government “expressing concern” over Ricketson’s case. It remains to be seen what, if anything, the new heads of government in Australia will say or do.

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said Ricketson had been a “scapegoat” in Hun Sen’s efforts to legitimize his wide-ranging crackdown on the opposition and broad dissent. Robertson also criticized the Australian government for failing to do more to help one of its citizens.

“This trial exposed everything that’s wrong with the Cambodian judicial system: 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,” Robertson said in a statement.

“The sad part is the Australian government just let Cambodia walk all over them by failing to publicly and consistently challenge this ludicrous charade. This is more proof that Australia’s softly, quietly approach towards Southeast Asian dictators is not just morally bankrupt – it’s also totally ineffective.”

Australia’s muted response

While visiting Jakarta last week, new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Ricketson would get “all the consular and other support from the Australian government you’d expect in these circumstances.” That’s yet to be seen.

In 2014, when Morrison was Australia’s immigration minister, he signed a controversial deal in Phnom Penh that gave Hun Sen’s government tens of millions of dollars in aid in return for Cambodia agreeing to resettle asylum seekers and refugees Australia refused to give entry.

The end result of that questionable deal was that Australia sent only a small number of refugees to Cambodia. Ricketson made a short video in protest, raising questions if Cambodia has the capacity to credibly and safely resettle refugees. Critics said the deal muted Australia’s criticism of Hun Sen’s numerous human rights abuses.

New Foreign Minister Marise Payne released a statement soon after Ricketson’s conviction saying the elderly filmmaker needed to consider his responses and use the “avenues open to him under Cambodian law”, which obviously are limited in Cambodia’s authoritarian context where the courts serve rather than check the executive.

Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne speaks to the media in Sydney on January 5, 2017. Australia on January 5 rejected claims it tried to "recruit" Indonesia's best soldiers as it worked to mend relations with Jakarta after military ties were suspended. / AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks to the media in previous capacity as defense minister, Sydney, January 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

Nor have officials in Canberra commented on two damning television news shows that pointed to corruption and money laundering by Cambodian officials in Australia. Both programs also ran footage of threats made to members of the Cambodian community by Prime Minister Hun Sen while on an official visit to Australia.

Al Jazeera exposed  millions of dollars worth of property owned in Melbourne by Kong Vibol, the director general of Cambodia’s tax department. His reported government salary is US$1,000 per month.

Kong Vibol led a crackdown on Cambodia’s independent media last year, hitting the Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post with massive tax bills that eventually forced both newspapers out of business. Ironically, The Phnom Penh Post, where I previously served as editor, had previously been Australian owned.

The weekly ABC show Four Corners, meanwhile, highlighted Hun Sen’s alleged abuses of power and also confronted his controversial nephew Hun To at his large house in Melbourne, carefully stepping around the Lamborghini in the driveway while filming.

Hun To has been questioned but not charged by Australian Federal Police over a number of issues, including drug smuggling into Australia. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

The only “avenues” now open to Ricketson to regain his freedom are an appeal to a higher court, which must be lodged within 30 days of being sentenced, or a royal pardon from Cambodia’s king. In Cambodia, royal pardons are only granted if the prime minister makes a request to the monarch.

No way out

In Ricketson’s case, without a lot of pressure from the Australian government, it’s doubtful Hun Sen will ever make such a request.

Meanwhile, rumors run rife inside and outside Cambodia over why Ricketson was arrested in the first place. He was clearly more obsessed with documenting Cambodia’s indigent communities than with local politics. For many years, he had filmed and documented the lives of children he found scavenging on a large rubbish dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

He lobbied the Phnom Penh Post while I was editor to run stories on why he had been refused access to some of the children he had been filming for several years. The access was blocked after they were taken in by the Cambodian Children’s Fund charity.

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.A Cambodian court on August 31 convicted Australian filmmaker James Ricketson of spying and sentenced him to six years in jail. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN Sothy
Australian filmmaker James Ricketson tries to speak to journalists from a prison vehicle after his guilty verdict, August 31, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

He later aired his complaints against the charity, and it’s founder Scott Neeson, over social media and the popular Khmer 440 website. There, he published details of Neeson’s generous monthly salary and travel expenses. Neeson fired back by hiring well-heeled lawyers and threats of expensive litigation for defamation.

There are plenty of other examples of Ricketson’s acrimonious clashes with organizations and individuals over the years. But there are also plenty of examples of his superb work as a filmmaker and his genuine good-hearted generosity to some of Cambodia’s poorest people.

As one of my friends in Phnom Penh who knows Ricketson said after he was sentenced to six years in jail last Friday: “James may be a bit crazy and may be many things, but one thing he’s not is a spy.”

Indeed, if there is any shred of justice in Cambodia, which at present is not readily apparent, Ricketson should be freed unconditionally and allowed to continue his important documentary works.

Alan Parkhouse is a former editor-in-chief of both The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times.