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Australian filmmaker found guilty of espionage in Cambodia

Family, diplomats, legal experts and reporters baffled as James Ricketson is jailed for six years

Australian filmmaker found guilty of espionage in Cambodia

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson is led away from court and sent back to prison on Aug. 31. (Photo by Luke Hunt)

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson has been jailed for six years after a Phnom Penh court found him guilty of espionage and collecting information for "foreign states" that was damaging to Cambodian national security.

During the trial, prosecutor Seang Sok declined to say who 69-year-old Ricketson was spying for. He did not call any witnesses, did not name one victim, nor prove he was paid by anyone. The "secret" information supposedly stored on his computer, Ricketson argued, was open source.

"Who did I spy for?" Ricketson yelled across the courtroom on Aug. 31. "That's all I want to know. Please tell me," he said as he was whisked back to Prey Sar prison.

Rights groups were angered by the verdict.

Phil Robertson, regional director for Human Rights Watch, said the trial was an expose of everything that's wrong with the Cambodian judicial system. That included "bogus charges, more than a year of abusive pre-trial detention, prosecutors with little or no evidence."

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"Can anyone really explain the difference now between a court in Cambodia versus a court in Vietnam or North Korea?" asked Robertson. "Cambodia should stop tormenting Ricketson and his family, and let him go so he can return to Australia with his family." 

Espionage charges left Ricketson's family, diplomats, legal experts and reporters baffled and his legal team built his defense around his independent journalism and his personal right to express his own political views.

But those arguments fell flat when the court released a batch of emails between Ricketson and the now banned Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) detailing plans by its leader Sam Rainsy to seize power through a bloodless coup.

The correspondence, part of 1,600 pages and 15,000 emails seized from his computer during a year-long investigation, contradicted Ricketson's defense.

Astonishingly, Ricketson said he had offered the CNRP an election strategy through a campaign of "punchy" ads highlighting the need for change in the run-up to the 2013 poll.

"It is fascinating to be behind the scenes and to be observing the way Sam Rainsy is plotting to become prime minister," Ricketson said in an email. "As you can imagine, life in Phnom Penh is quite exciting right now."

He went a step further, asking Sam Rainsy's wife, Tioulong Saumura, to fact-check an opinion piece he wrote — entitled "Cambodian Spring" — and to look for anything "misleading in any way."

Asked whether Cambodian Spring equates with the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Ricketson said he preferred "the Paris Spring, which was committed to peaceful protest and non-violent change." The Paris Spring of 1968 was anything but.

What became known as the Cambodian Spring culminated in a series of violent demonstrations after the 2013 election when the CNRP failed to win a majority and accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of rigging the ballot.

Hun Sen upped the ante by warning that a "color revolution" with support from the United States was in the offing. The CNRP was dissolved, its leaders fled or were jailed and a crackdown on the media followed in the lead-up to the last election, held in July. Hun Sen won all 125 seats in that national ballot.

Another letter — "Cambodian politics for dummies" drafted for then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull — said: "Hun Sen and the CPP have plundered the resources and stolen land from tens of thousands and thrown in prison people who objected."

It also urged Turnbull not to shake hands with Hun Sen — otherwise he risked having that moment "frozen in eternity."

"This is not journalism," judge Koy Sao said.

Ricketson struggled to prove he made any money as a professional journalist while his income from film was limited and he was forced to drive a taxi to supplement a frugal lifestyle.

The court also heard he was not a member of any media industry associations — he produced just one press pass for his time in Cambodia spanning 22 years — nor did he work with NGOs or obtain permission to film.

That last point mattered as Ricketson was arrested after flying a drone over a CNRP rally in June 2017 without a permit, which the chief prosecutor said detailed the secret location of security detachments. Ricketson then offered the footage to Sam Rainsy for political use and was arrested the following day.

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