Australian filmmaker tells Cambodian court 'no evidence I'm a spy'
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Australian filmmaker tells Cambodian court 'no evidence I'm a spy'

Phnom Penh: Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was wrongfully arrested and Cambodian police had no grounds to seize and search his cameras and computer, according his lawyer as the lengthy trial continues.

James Ricketson who is accused of espionage leaves the prison van as he arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a court appearance in June.

James Ricketson who is accused of espionage leaves the prison van as he arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a court appearance in June.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Ricketson was charged with espionage and faces up to 10 years in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison if convicted.

The prosecution rested its case last week after presenting just three pieces of evidence. That included two emails - a letter from Ricketson to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which he made reference to the size of strongman Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, and an email to former Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy regarding rumours of an arrest warrant - as well as a dozen photos of riot police at a land dispute protest.

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On Monday, Ricketson’s lawyer Kong Sam Onn said his line of questioning was to raise two points: “there were errors in the arrest and the police did not have grounds for the arrest”.

Ricketson said he was not informed of his rights, was repeatedly told he was not under arrest, was held for longer than the legal limit and was asked to sign documents without a lawyer present that were written in Khmer - a language he cannot read.

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He was initially questioned for not having his passport on him at the time of his arrest, and for flying a drone above an opposition party rally the day before - topics that have not been addressed in detail at the trial since.

“All they wished to do was check my mobile and camera to see if there was a thing indicating that I had broken Cambodian laws,” Ricketson said, adding that on June 6 last year, they told him they found nothing incriminating and he expected to be released.

He allowed them to look at his mobile, but gave no permission for them to access his laptop and he did not provide his password.

“Eleven months later, they supplied me with 1600 pages of writings from inside my computer,” he said.

There was “no evidence I am a spy, but there is a lot of evidence that I am a journalist”, he said.

The court also screened four minutes of Ricketson’s documentary Sleeping with Cambodia, filmed in 1996 and featuring his adopted Cambodian daughter, an impoverished child named Chap Chanti.

“I am actually shocked to see the film,” an emotional Ricketson told the courtroom. “It was my concern and my fear this gorgeous 10-year-old girl might end up in a brothel in three years' time.”

Ricketson said his work on the complexity of poverty in Cambodia and on orphanages that profit from children who have living parents meant that he had “earned many enemies in the NGO community”.

Ricketson has spent more than 14 months in the overcrowded Prey Sar prison, where he has taken ill and been threatened by another inmate with an untreated mental illness.

The drawn-out trial, now in its fifth day, was expected to wrap up on Monday but proceedings were extended to allow for further questioning.

During several interrogations from the pre-trial investigating judge, Ricketson said he was never given the opportunity to present exculpatory evidence and was told repeatedly to “be patient”.

“I would expect, given the seriousness of the charge...that there would be some very concrete evidence” from witnesses or complainants, Ricketson said. If not, “a great mistake has been made in my arrest and detention”.

Ricketson said that for one of the offending emails, which claimed Hun Sen had a personal bodyguard unit of 10,000, that he got the information from Google or other journalists.

Ricketson said he “never” engaged with Cambodia’s national security. “I know nothing about national defence,” he said.

Ricketson also mentioned that some media stories circulated after his arrest - possibly a reference to unsubstantiated conspiracy theories peddled by Fresh News, a government mouthpiece - alleged opposition leader Kem Sokha’s daughter had spent time with a so-called “spy” with a “similar name” to his.

“I believe that it was a case of mistaken identity,” Ricketson said. “That’s why I was arrested. It was a mistake I thought would be rectified in a matter of days or weeks. It has yet to be rectified.”

Ricketson told the prosecutor that nobody asked him to film with a drone, and that he had provided a copy to the now-outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was forcibly dissolved by Cambodia’s courts last year, paving the way for a landslide ruling party victory at last month’s national election.

On Monday 11 former CNRP activists were due for release. That brings the tally to almost 20 political prisoners either pardoned or released on bail in the past week in Cambodia, signaling a widespread post-election amnesty from strongman Hun Sen

Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said the “repeated continuations of these proceedings are a bit ludicrous”, given the prosecution has “very little evidence” and the presiding judge “no doubt has instructions from the government on how to rule in the case”.

“These charges and proceedings have been a charade from day one, but the suffering that Ricketson has been put through is real,” he said.

The trial continues.