Aussie filmmaker pledges to return to Cambodia

Family 'eternally grateful' to King Norodom Sihamoni for pardoning James Ricketson
Aussie filmmaker pledges to return to Cambodia

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson speaks to the media at Sydney airport on Sept. 23. Ricketson was freed from jail after receiving a royal pardon in Cambodia as his family spoke of being "overwhelmed with happiness" at his release. (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP)

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson has returned to Australia after his six-year sentence for spying — following a trial sharply criticized by human rights groups and politicians — was pardoned by Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni. But he says he still loves Cambodia and will return as soon as possible.

Ricketson, 69, denied the charges throughout but dropped his appeal following his Aug. 31 conviction, deciding instead to seek a pardon through a request made by his son Jesse to the monarch and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

He was pardoned late on Sept. 21 and arrived back in Australia on Sept. 23 to be greeted by friends and relatives at Sydney airport.

"I can't believe it — it's a bit of culture shock. Two days ago, I was in a maximum-security prison in Cambodia and here I am in Sydney," Ricketson said. "I don't love Cambodia any less given what's happened. In fact, I love it even more."

He looked healthy after suffering from numerous medical complaints including weight loss, scabies and lice, prompting a transfer to a prison infirmary, and he also thanked Hun Sen.

He said he would like to return to Cambodia. "I'll be going back as soon as I can but I'll need to recover obviously."

Ricketson was held in Cambodia's notorious Prey Sar prison for 15 months following his arrest in June last year for flying a drone without a permit over a political rally organized by the now banned opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The prosecution alleged Ricketson was spying for "foreign states" and he was charged with espionage and crimes endangering Cambodian national security under Article 446 of the National Penal Code.

However, prosecutors declined to say which states Ricketson was working for and did not call any witnesses to substantiate the allegations.

"It's been a rough and tough fight but my father is an inspiring humanitarian," Ricketson's daughter Roxanne Holmes said. Her brother Jesse said the family was "eternally grateful" to King Norodom Sihamoni for "bringing this nightmare to an end."

Ricketson's case won international attention as a press freedom issue. A petition calling for his immediate release garnered more than 70,000 signatures and included support from two Hollywood heavyweights, director Peter Weir and actor Sam Neill. The Australian government also intervened on his behalf.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said it was excellent news that Ricketson had finally been pardoned.

"This very welcome release does not erase the shameful procession of farcical questions and 'evidence' that a Cambodian kangaroo court used to convict Ricketson, nor the reputational damage this case has brought to the Cambodian judiciary," he said.

A bench of three judges heard that Ricketson's work was largely focused on former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who now lives in self-imposed exile in France after leading violent anti-government protests in the aftermath of the disputed 2013 national elections.

The CNRP was subsequently dissolved by the courts, enabling Hun Sen to win all 125 seats contested at the last national ballot in July. Since then, many dissidents and opposition supporters arrested in a pre-election crackdown have been released from prison.

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But others, including current CNRP leader Kem Sokha, are still to face the courts on charges ranging from defamation to treason.

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