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Australian Filmmaker Still in Cambodian Prison on Espionage Charges

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson arrives at the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 23, 2018.

In a week that saw two journalists accused of espionage released on bail and four jailed land rights activists pardoned completely in Cambodia, filmmaker James Ricketson remains imprisoned after what had been expected to be the final day of his trial.

The trial of the Australian, who has been held in a Cambodian jail for 14 months on spying charges, though it has never been explained why, plunged to new depths of absurdity at a hearing Friday that ended with yet another delay in the proceedings.

The only evidence presented in court by the prosecution that supports the espionage charges against Ricketson is a series of fairly routine emails between him, a lawyer and former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, as well as some photographs he took of demonstrations.

Ricketson's defense lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, has sought to demonstrate that Ricketson is not a spy but just a filmmaker with decades of experience and a long list of film credits.

To that end, in many ways Friday's court session resembled a filmmaking master class rather than a trial as Ricketson explained how grants he received from film financing groups, such as Screen Australia, were obtained and used for the intended purpose.

FILE - Australian filmmaker James Ricketson gestures as he leaves the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 16, 2018.
FILE - Australian filmmaker James Ricketson gestures as he leaves the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 16, 2018.

"There is only one country in the world that equates documentary filmmaking with espionage and I'm in that country now," an exasperated Ricketson told the Cambodian court. "Frankly, I think it is up to the court to prove I am not a filmmaker."

'This is your life'

Then, in a rare moment of joy for Ricketson over the past 14 months of his incarceration, the hearing transitioned into a self-narrated screening of his extensive career showreel.

"James, this is your life," he quipped as the examples began rolling of the many award-winning films he has made since graduating from the inaugural course of the Australian Film and Television School in 1973.

"That's me when I used to have hair," he joked as photographs of the 69-year-old's formative years as a filmmaker flashed on screen.

A less than enthralled presiding judge Seng Leang at one point buried his head on his desk as the exhaustive showreel rolled on.

Among his many credits around the world, including an acting role in a film by director Werner Hertzog, were productions directly pertinent to Ricketson's case in Cambodia.

For the past 21 years, Ricketson has worked on a film about an impoverished street child named Chanti who he financially supported through school and later helped buy a house.

His credits also include a film he made about child booksellers in Phnom Penh struggling to make enough money to live.

Chanti, who just gave birth to her ninth child, has testified that Ricketson is indeed a humanitarian, and his supporting character witnesses have included director Peter Weir.

Bleak outlook

But despite such endorsements and the near total absence of a case against him, Ricketson's prospects for release do not look good.

On Thursday his cramped cell at Phnom Penh's Prey Sar Prison was raided, with staff seizing documents including evidence, court submissions, a letter to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and his copy of Cambodia's Criminal Code.

FILE - A guard at Prey Sar Prison in Cambodia is seen in this undated image taken from video.
FILE - A guard at Prey Sar Prison in Cambodia is seen in this undated image taken from video.

Judge Seng Leang defended the action, stating that in prison "they have their own internal rules" and this required authorities to take action.

Ricketson's son, Jesse, said outside the hearing he had "no idea" why the documents — effectively the contents of his case — had been seized.

"There's been discussion here, he's asked the judges to ask the prison authorities to give it back and they've said yes they will ask but they have different bodies so they can't guarantee anything and, I don't know, that's all just a big kind of confusion" he said.

Questionable charges

Jesse Ricketson confirmed his father did have a recent physical altercation with another inmate at Prey Sar Prison but characterized the incident as minor.

"Whether it's violence, whether it's illness, there's always things that can go horribly wrong there and we're constantly terrified about that, we need him out of there as quick as possible," he said.

Ricketson faces up to 10 years if convicted of the charge of gathering information that could jeopardize Cambodia's national defense.

Similar charges were used as the basis for arresting Cambodia's opposition leader, Kem Sokha, and dissolving his Cambodia National Rescue Party in the lead-up to last month's election, in which the ruling party won every seat.

Two former Radio Free Asia reporters who were charged with supplying information to a foreign state, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were released on bail this week.

Activist Tep Vanny of the Boeung Kak Lake area and three of her fellow protesters also were pardoned of charges related to demonstrations they participated in years ago.

Ricketson's trial resumes Monday.