A court in Cambodia sentenced Australian filmmaker James Ricketson to six years in prison for espionage Friday, prompting rights groups to slam the verdict as representative of a judicial system widely seen as beholden to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Ricketson, 69, was arrested in June last year after flying a drone over a rally by the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November over an alleged plot to overthrow the government, clearing the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep all 125 parliamentary seats up for grabs in a general election last month.
Judge Seng Leang of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Ricketson guilty on two charges of espionage and ordered him to spend six years in jail, without providing details about which country he had been convicted of spying for. The filmmaker had faced up to 10 years in prison for the charges.
"We have decided to convict to six years in prison for espionage and collecting harmful information that could affect national defense," the judge said at the conclusion of the six-day trial.
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Ricketson’s lawyer Kong Sam Onn told RFA’s Khmer Service there was “little evidence” presented by prosecutors at his client’s trial.
“The court has failed to prove that my client is a spy or that he has collected any information that harms national defense,” he said.
Kong Sam Onn expressed hope that Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni might grant Ricketson a royal pardon, noting that his work had benefitted the country’s poor. His client’s health has suffered in detention, he added.
Hun Sen, who secured another five-year term to add to his 33 years in office after official results of the July 29 election were announced on Aug. 15, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics in the lead up to ballots, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
The U.S. recently announced an expansion of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision to withdraw funding for last month’s elections.
The European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, also withdrew support ahead of the ballot and is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
On Tuesday, King Sihamoni granted a royal pardon at Hun Sen’s behest to 14 jailed CNRP activists who were serving long sentences for “insurrection” in connection with anti-government street protests in 2014 that turned into violent clashes with police and security forces.
Their release followed the freeing by royal decree earlier this month of Tep Vanny—a prominent land activist—and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab, as well as the granting of bail to two former RFA reporters who are facing charges of “espionage.”
Social commentator Kim Sok was also freed in August after completing an 18-month sentence for defamation related to his suggestion that the CPP orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley, although he still faces another defamation charge following a complaint filed by Hun Sen in January.
All of those freed were detained on what are widely seen as politically motivated charges brought by prosecutors at Hun Sen’s bidding, and amid a far-reaching crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
Rights groups dismissed the court ruling outright on Friday.
Am Sam Ath, the head of investigations for local rights group Licadho, told RFA that there was “insufficient evidence presented in the court relating to the alleged espionage charges” against Ricketson, adding that the judge was unable to answer when the filmmaker demanded to know which country he was being accused of collecting information for.
Soeng Sen Karona, senior investigator for local rights group Adhoc, also questioned why Ricketson’s alleged paymasters were not named.
“On top of that, the evidence presented by the prosecution did not pass the test of reasonable doubt,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, unleashed some of the most damning criticism of Friday’s verdict, calling it the decision of a kangaroo court that acts according to Hun Sen’s whims.
“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,” he said in a statement.
“From day one, James Ricketson has been a scapegoat in Hun Sen's false narrative of a so-called 'color revolution' used as an excuse to crack down on the political opposition and civil society critics.”
Robertson also slammed Australia’s government for “let[ting] Cambodia walk all over them” by failing to consistently challenge the case and demand Ricketson’s immediate and unconditional release. He suggested that Canberra’s soft approach to dictators like Hun Sen in Southeast Asia is both “morally bankrupt” and “totally ineffective.”
“Cambodia judicial realities indicate this guilty verdict was politically predetermined and the only way to counter that is with a staunch public defense, not deference to a judicial system that is politically captured,” Robertson said.
He likened politically motivated cases like Ricketson’s in Cambodia—a democratic nation in name—to those in Vietnam and North Korea, which are ruled by authoritarian governments that directly issue verdicts through their countries’ courts.
Robertson called on Cambodia to “stop tormenting Ricketson and his family,” immediately and unconditionally release the filmmaker, and reverse his conviction.
While on an official visit to Indonesia, Australia's new Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters after Friday’s trial that his government will provide support to Ricketson, but urged patience.
“As usual in these types of events it is best to deal with these things calmly and directly and in a way which best assists a citizen,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.