James Ricketson
Photo: AP/Heng Sinith

As the trial of Australian filmmaker and accused spy James Ricketson entered its beleaguered sixth day, it sharpened into focus. This was a trial not about espionage, but about policing thought.

Ricketson, who was on Friday sentenced to six years in a Cambodian prison, had some vocal and stinging criticisms about Prime Minister Hun Sen and demonstrated a clear preference for the opposition party. Ricketson was arrested a day after he flew a drone filming an opposition party rally ahead of local elections last year, and faced 10 years in prison after he was charged with collecting information that could jeopardise national defence — vague terms open to interpretation by a corrupt judiciary. 

After the prosecution presented unconvincing evidence — a letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the number of Hun Sen’s bodyguards, an email to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy asking if the exiled politician had been issued an arrest warrant, a dozen photos of riot police in a public park — the judges dived into the real heart of the matter. Why was Ricketson writing “bad things” about their leader, a man whose full title translates to “Princely Exalted Supreme Great Commander of Gloriously Victorious Troops”? Didn’t he think Cambodia had seen some positive developments in the past 20 years? If foreign aid were cut off, wouldn’t the Cambodian people suffer?

Any questions about whether Ricketson’s trial was politically motivated evaporated.

Ricketson said it appeared he was on trial for “having the temerity to express an opinion”. “This has nothing to do with espionage,” he said.

Former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, who was jailed in Egypt for more than a year in a landmark press freedom case, agreed. “There’s nothing I’ve seen that qualifies James as a spy or suggests that he’s been actively working to undermine or destabilise… It’s a dangerous step for the country,” he told Crikey.

“People need to be able to criticise. They need to be able to have their thoughts. Anything less than that is a dictatorship, it’s an authoritarian state.”

[Media independence in Cambodia takes a nose dive ahead of elections]

A chorus of press freedom advocates condemned the conviction.

“The spectre of state repression of press freedom and freedom of expression still looms large over Cambodia,” said Tess Bacalla of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

Daniel Bastard, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, described the six-year sentence “utterly unacceptable”. “Nothing in this case bears scrutiny. [Ricketson] was arrested on completely spurious grounds,” he said. “The prosecution presented a totally specious case against him.”

But in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, any criticism of the strongman or any attempt to change the government, even through a peaceful transfer of power after an election, is interpreted as a destabilising threat.

Hun Sen has ruled for 33 years. Changing the country’s leadership would inevitably result in civil war and a return to the Khmer Rouge era, Bastard warns, whipping up rhetoric of “colour revolution” and treason.

Such rhetoric was used to justify the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha and outlaw his party, all of which happened after Ricketson’s arrest, leaving a clear path for the ruling party’s sweeping victory in July’s national election.

In this context, even Ricketson’s use of the term “Cambodian Spring” or his reference to the opposition’s plans to gain government can be considered offences.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said that Ricketson’s known sympathies for the opposition had made him “a pawn in the fierce domestic crackdown” in the lead-up to the election.

“The treatment of Ricketson is a warning not just to journalists — though it does set a frightening precedent in this regard — but also to foreigners in general, not to get ‘involved’ in any way in Cambodian politics,” Strangio told Crikey.

Policing opinion in Cambodia has ramped up over the past year, and Ricketson is not the only victim. A Cambodian woman — who was a UN-recognised refugee — was extradited from Thailand and jailed for throwing a shoe at a billboard with Hun Sen’s face on it.

Recently passed laws have seen opposition activists jailed for insulting the King on Facebook. A man was arrested on his wedding day for calling Hun Sen’s regime “authoritarian” — hardly a lone voice.

This period of oppression has been offset in the past fortnight by the release of some two dozen political prisoners — Hun Sen’s way of calming the tense political climate. Despite an apologetic letter to Hun Sen, no such an amnesty has yet been extended to Ricketson.

One recently released political commentator fled the country this week, fearing he could be returned to prison, and some of those freed have the threat of further legal persecution dangling over them.

One of those to benefit from the recent amnesty was Uon Chhin, one of two Radio Free Asia journalists arrested on similar spying charges to Ricketson.   

Chhin, who faces a heavier penalty of up to 15 years behind bars, will no doubt be taking stock after Ricketson’s verdict.

“This is really sad for James,” he said, speaking to Reporters Without Borders. “We were friends and he lent us books in English. I fear the worst for his health, given the conditions in the prison. It is a living hell.”

What do you make of the Ricketson case? Write to [email protected].

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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