The Australian government “let Cambodia walk all over it”, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch said after 69-year-old filmmaker James Ricketson was sentenced to six years in prison upon being found guilty of the “espionage of information prejudicial to national defence” by Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday.
“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,” Robertson said in a statement.
“The sad part is the Australian government just let Cambodia walk all over [it] by failing to publicly and consistently challenge this ludicrous charade and demand Ricketson’s immediate and unconditional release. This is more proof that Australia’s softly, quietly approach towards Southeast Asian dictators is not just morally bankrupt – it’s also totally ineffective.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Presiding Judge Seng Leang said while handing down the verdict that “after legally checking, the court has decided to sentence James Ricketson to six years’ imprisonment on the charge of ‘supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence’ based on Articles 439 and 446 of the Criminal Code”.
The verdict came after a seven-day trial that ended on Wednesday.
During the hearing, Ricketson rejected the charge laid against him by prosecutor Sieng Sok that he used his humanitarian work helping the poor to hide his spying activities.
Ricketson said he was just a filmmaker and journalist, and that he had not gathered any information harmful to Cambodian security or conducted espionage.
Kong Sam Onn, Ricketson’s lawyer, asked the presiding judge on Wednesday to drop the charge and release his client.
Ricketson reacted after the verdict was pronounced, saying: “Which country did I conduct the espionage for? It is unbelievable.” He was then hurriedly returned to prison.
Sam Onn said the trial was notable for the lack of evidence to support the charge brought against his client.
“After a seven-day trial, we can see that there is little evidence for burdening Ricketson by saying he is a spy or an agent affecting national defence or conducting espionage activities against the Cambodian government,” he said.
He continued that he would ask the government for a pardon from the King. Another option would be to forward the case to the Appeal Court.
“I will meet my client to confirm his stance. We will ask the Australian embassy to support our request,” he said.
Ricketson’s son Jesse said the court’s decision was shocking. He said he hoped there would be sympathy for his father’s situation.
“We hope that good things will happen soon,” he said.
Ricketson was arrested on June 3 last year, a day after filming commune election campaigning by the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party near Chroy Changvar Bridge.
HRW’s Robertson continued in his statement that “the 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. When it comes to a conviction in a Cambodian court, clearly no facts are required.
“Cambodian judicial realities indicate this guilty verdict was politically predetermined, and the only way to counter that is with a staunch public defence, not deference to a judicial system that is politically captured.
“Cambodia should stop tormenting Ricketson and his family, release him immediately and unconditionally, and quash this conviction,” he added.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said: “It is a particularly stressful time for Mr Ricketson and his family, and the Australian government continues to provide him full consular assistance. The Australian government will consider what further appropriate support we can provide.”
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) expressed its concern over the conviction, calling on Cambodian authorities to clarify publicly in a transparent manner the reason for the conviction.
“OPCC hopes that Ricketson will be kept in humane conditions and his rights respected during his incarceration,” it added.