A Phnom Penh judge on Thursday rejected the latest bail request of Australian filmmaker James Ricketson on the first day of his trial on espionage charges, even as Hollywood director Peter Weir appeared at the capital’s Municipal Court as a defence witness.
Ricketson, 69, was charged with collecting information deemed as jeopardising national security after his arrest for using a drone to film a rally by the now court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party during commune election campaigning in June last year.
The director was charged under Article 446 of the Criminal Code with “acts of collecting information that may undermine national defence”. The prosecution alleges the offences were committed from 1995 until his arrest in Phnom Penh on June 3 last year.
He faces up to 10 years in prison if found guiltyThe start of the first day of Ricketson’s trial on Thursday was given over to a bail hearing, as his defence lawyers raised six grounds in arguing for his release.
They were his willingness to attend court at any time, the completion of the criminal investigation, his age and ongoing health problems, and his vow not to pressure witnesses, contact anyone else involved in the case or break the law.
His lawyers also argued that his incarceration in Prey Sar harms his defence as it limits the time he can spend with his legal team.
“He is a responsible person, and he would not run away. He will come back at any time. He is willing to hand over all documents as necessary,” said Peung Yok Hiep, one of his two defence lawyers.
Kong Sam Onn, Ricketson’s other lawyer, said there was no evidence to prove his client had committed a crime.
“Mr Ricketson has already accepted that he flew his drone in a forbidden area as announced by Phnom Penh City Hall. He is a journalist and filmmaker, but he did not get registered with the ministry. So my client should be responsible only for these two actions,” the lawyer argued.
Sam Onn continued that as a journalist, interviewing politicians was part of the job and should not be regarded as collecting information harmful to national security.
“Actually,” Sam Onn pointed out, “defending the nation is the duty of the military, not the police –but he was arrested by the police.”
Presiding Judge Seng Leang rejected the bail request after a 30-minute deliberation, backing a request from prosecutor Sieng Sok.
After the bail request was rejected, the court went on to convene Ricketson’s espionage trial.
Sam Onn submitted a further four witnesses to be heard, taking the number of largely character witnesses, to seven. One of them will be Ricketson’s stepdaughter.
The rest of the first day of the trial was spent questioning 74-year-old witness Peter Weir, the famous Australian director of Hollywood movies, including Dead Poets Society, Green Card, The Truman Show and Master and Commander.
Weir described his decades-long relationship with Ricketson, which began in 1973 when he started film school in Australia and Weir was his adviser.
He said Ricketson was never involved with any political party, either in Australia or Cambodia.
Ricketson had produced both fiction and documentary films on various subjects, during his time in Australia and in Cambodia, he said.
Weir said he believed Ricketson’s arrest was due to a cultural misunderstanding. “I think this is due to confusion … a culture clash has caused this to happen. He had recorded what he had seen as he would have done in Australia.
“In Australia, showing real life, writing and expressing our opinion is normal, like the oxygen we breathe every day,” Weir said.
Judge Seng Leang adjourned the court at 6pm, with the trial set to resume on Monday.