“I still don’t know what country I’m meant to be spying for,” sixty-nine-year-old James Ricketson was captured saying these words by ABC as he was driven from the court house in a prison truck.
The filmmaker, journalist and activist is awaiting a result in his espionage trial on Friday the 31st of August. He stands accused of endangering Cambodia’s national security and could face 10 years in jail if found guilty. He was arrested in June of last year after flying a drone over a political rally for the since banned opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). However, the prosecution has been unable to provide any evidence of collaboration with a foreign government, failing to name which country Ricketson was allegedly spying for. In 1600 pages of evidence there were no government links found save for a letter written to Australia’s Prime Minister at the time Malcolm Turnbull urging him not to invite Cambodian PM Hun Sen to Australia, ABC reports. Ricketson has long been a vocal critic of Hun and this seems to provide a clearer motivation for the prosecution. Freshly re-elected Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun has been widely condemned for holding a sham election just last month in which the main opposition party was outlawed. This extends his now more than 30-year reign.
Chief prosecutor Sieng Sok was adamant in his accusation of Ricketson saying, “He is a spy, collecting information from our country to sell to other countries and damage national security,” and, “The accused pretended to be an expatriate reporter, aiming to collect information about the security situation in Cambodia,” according to Reuters. However, much of Ricketson’s work focused on Cambodia’s poor and underprivileged. This too was a point of argument for the prosecution stating per the ABC that “all his filming activities cause the international community to hate Cambodia, this is his intention.” Meanwhile, Ricketson denies these charges stringently arguing a lack of due process in his arrest and a lack of credible evidence in the dossier that was compiled. “Nowhere in the 1600 pages is there any suggestion that I am a spy but there is a lot of evidence that I am a journalist,” he told Channel 9 News.
The far more likely explanation for Ricketson’s arrest comes from increased crackdowns on opposition by Hun in the lead up to the 2018 elections. He was arrested for filming a rally of the main opposition party, the CNRP, and he has had a history of contact with Sam Rainsy, the previous leader of the party. Ricketson argued that in his more than 20 years of visiting and making documentaries in Cambodia he has built up relations with prominent political figures as part of his filmmaking. While a critic of the government and Hun, Ricketson’s focus is largely on the poor of Cambodia and he has aimed to bring a voice to these people.
It seems clear that Ricketson is yet another victim of the Cambodian government’s repression of opposition. His status as a foreigner and his relation to Hun’s political rivals has made him an easy target for the regime. This trial highlights the extent of Cambodia’s illiberal and undemocratic composition. While it reflects poorly on the state of the nation’s democracy, perhaps solace can be found in the work of James Ricketson who has been willing to shine a light on injustice and attempt to improve the lives of those who needlessly suffer.