MORE than a year has passed since filmmaker James Ricketson entered Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison – half the duration of his granddaughter’s life. Accused by Cambodian authorities of espionage, he is yet to be prosecuted for any crime.
“I haven’t been informed which country I’m spying for. I would love to know,” Ricketson called out to reporters as he was led to a courtroom on June 15, just prior to the court delaying his trial for one month.
The Australian national was arrested in June 2017 on charges of “collecting information prejudicial to national security” after filming a street rally by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) with a drone.
Until he was recently moved due to ill health, the 69-year-old was sharing a squalid cell with almost 150 other people. Among those held at Prey Sar are paedophiles and drug smugglers.
Anxiety over the case and his time in Prey Sar prison – where overcrowding is rife and officials have faced accusations of torture – has taken a toll on Ricketson’s health. According to his family he lost 20 kilograms in a matter of months during his detention.
An official for the Cambodian Department of Prisons told the Phnom Penh Post in October last year that “standard capacity is between 1,600 and 1,800 people, but now we contain more than 6,000 people.”
In a filthy cell with limited water to wash with, Ricketson has suffered skin infections and suspected pneumonia. “Literally he couldn’t lie down. He had people sleeping on top of him,” said Roxanne Holmes, the daughter he adopted in the 1980s.
Ricketson has watched three fellow inmates die in the past year, she added.
Family by family
According to Holmes, her father is no more than a journalist and humanitarian who had sought to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in one of the poorest nations in Asia.
“That is the man that my father has always been,” she told Asian Correspondent in a phone interview from Sydney. “If he sees a problem, he doesn’t walk past it. He’ll try to roll up his sleeves and help when he can.”
Over the past two decades he has visited the country, building relationships with families living on rubbish dumps outside of the national capital and documenting their lives. In particular, he has documented the life of Chanti, a woman who grew up in the slums of Phnom Penh.
“Cambodia had really opened his eyes. From such poverty … he wanted to make a difference through educating the kids, feeding the kids and their families, in the very same way that he had done for me,” Holmes said.
Ricketson helped purchase a house for the parents of Nov Sprevich, who grew up on a landfill site in Phnom Penh, in their home province of Prey Veng. “He is a very kind man [and] we always remember him,” she said in a statement provided to Asian Correspondent.
“For many years James visit every day the Baku dump and help my family and many relatives … he bring fresh fruits and rice,” Spreyvich said, adding that he helped more than 20 families living among the landfill.
Holmes said Ricketson has plans to purchase 18 more homes for poor families – work stalled while he has been incarcerated. It is this charitable spirit that led him to adopt her in the 1980s, she said.
“My early childhood had been filled with abuse. I was suffering from horrific panic attacks, self-harm from physical, emotional and sexual abuse from a very, very early age,” said Holmes.
“I was a very traumatised young woman. Putting me in the care of a single man who already had a five-year-old would be unheard of nowadays, but James proved himself to be the most honourable, compassionate and loving father that any child could ever hope for.”
They met while she was being held in a Western Sydney juvenile detention centre which Ricketson visited in the course of making a documentary. When Holmes was released, he took her in.
It was this passion for change and social justice, however, that would also see him locked up.
In the crossfire of a crackdown
Ricketson’s detention comes as Prime Minister Hun Sen is overseeing a crackdown against political opposition, civil society, the media and alleged foreign interference ahead of national elections on July 29. The former Khmer Rouge commander has already ruled Cambodia for three decades.
Recent years have seen his government target the CNRP – who once looked like they could replace the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – culminating in their official dissolution by the Cambodian Supreme Court last November.
A report released by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last week warned that civil society in Cambodia was being “suffocated” and that the country faced formally becoming a “one-party, autocratic state”.
“As media space closes, the government has attempted to create an alternative narrative justifying their actions and delegitimising civil society actors through propaganda,” added the report.
Ricketson interviewed CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy (now in exile) and Kem Sokha (now in jail) for a film back in 2014, but the family maintains that recording footage of the CNRP was merely for documentary purposes.
The contents of 25 emails used as purported evidence of Ricketson’s plotting of a “Colour Revolution” along with the CNRP and United States do illustrate sympathy for the opposition, but do not indicate participation in a conspiracy or espionage.
According to Holmes, he is completely innocent of spying and in fact a “very non-political man”. “He should have just apologised to the Cambodian people, but I don’t know what he has done to deserve such punishment,” she said. “When you’re a filmmaker you do ask questions.”
Ricketson’s arrest was at the time condemned by the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia as setting a “dangerous precedent that has industry-wide ramifications”.
Indeed, it came just months before Hun Sen’s regime shuttered the independent Cambodia Daily newspaper, the final headline for which declared the country’s ‘Descent Into Outright Dictatorship’.
The Cambodia Daily’s main independent competitor the Phnom Penh Post, meanwhile, was bought in May by the owner of a Malaysian public relations firm with links to Hun Sen, seeing an exodus of local and foreign journalists opposed to editorial self-censorship.
“Journalism is not a crime. Journalism is not espionage,” Ricketson said in January, the month he was denied bail by the Cambodian Supreme Court. “The Cambodian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and I’d like to think my Australian government would defend my right to freedom of speech also.”
Prominent Australian journalist Peter Greste – himself jailed for 400 days in Egypt for supposedly supporting terrorism in his coverage for Al Jazeera – has thrown his support behind the campaign to release Ricketson.
“There was no evidence the Cambodian authorities have presented to substantiate the espionage charges they’ve laid against James Ricketson. Without that evidence it’s hard to escape the conclusion it’s more about politics,” Greste told SBS News in January.
Two local Voice of America journalists Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin have also fallen foul of Cambodia’s anti-espionage law, charged in November last year with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source”.
They too remain in prison awaiting sentencing.
Hopes for release
The family is running a Change.org petition which has amassed almost 77,000 signatures calling upon Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to do more for Ricketson. “Unless the Australian government responds quickly, my innocent dad could die in jail,” it implores.
Ricketson’s younger biological son Jesse has relocated to Phnom Penh to fight for his father’s freedom.
While Australian consular officials have helped in welfare visits, Holmes said that “apart from books and letters and trying to arrange medical visits they seem to be quite powerless”. Bishop has claimed that she has taken up Ricketson’s case “at the highest levels” in the Cambodian government, including writing a private letter to her counterpart Prak Sokhonn.
But according to Holmes, Bishop’s letter assured that Canberra would not intervene in sovereign matters in Cambodia. The government has “basically thrown him under the bus”, she said.
His case has also attracted the support of Australian parliamentarian and former prime minister Tony Abbott, who in May met with the filmmaker’s supporters and wrote on the petition that “our government should firmly indicate to the Cambodian government that it’s past time for him to be released on humanitarian grounds and allowed to return to Australia.”
Earlier this month, opposition Labor MP for South Australia Tony Zappia issued a letter to Hun Sen to appeal for the Cambodian PM’s personal intervention in the case.
“I have been told that flying a drone is not illegal in Phnom Penh and that he was not using the drone for spying purposes,” wrote Zappia.
Prominent members of the Australian film and television community including Sam Neill (of Jurassic Park fame), Greta Scacchi, Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward have also called for him to be released.
“How long can this nonsense go on before the Australian government has the gumption to say, in public, ‘this is not acceptable. You cannot treat an Australian citizen in this way, an Australian who has been found guilty of no crime and yet has been in detention for nine months?’” wrote Ricketson in an opinion piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald in March.
While the main aim is to clear Ricketson’s name and get him back to Australia safely, “one of his great fears is not being able to go back there and see Chanti, her husband and eight children,” Holmes said.