August 31, 2018 - Updated on September 21, 2018

Cambodian court sentences Australian filmmaker to six years in jail

James Ricketson is manhandled by police as he tries to talk to journalists while being taken back to prison (photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the “utterly unacceptable” six-year prison sentence that a Cambodian court passed today on Australian documentary filmmaker James Ricketson and reiterates its call for his unconditional release.



RSF is relieved to learn that the Cambodian authorities pardoned Australian documentary filmmaker James Ricketson on 21 September 2018. RSF calls for his immediate release and deplores the fact that he spent 15 months and 21 days held in appalling conditions on a trumped-up spying charge before finally learning that he was to be freed.



“Which country am I spying for?” James Ricketson shouted through the grille of the police truck taking him back to Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison today after a court convicted him on an espionage charge.

Now aged 69, Ricketson has been held since 3 June 2017, when police arrested him in his hotel on the grounds that he had used a drone the previous day to film a rally by the main opposition party, which was banned a few months later.


The prosecution accused him of coming to Cambodia with the "intention to incite hatred" and based its case on nothing more than a few insignificant photos and emails found on his computer.  In reality, Ricketson is respected in Australia for his socially-conscious documentaries and has visited Cambodia often during the past 20 years to film the realities of life for the poorest segment of its population.


Ricketson insisted throughout the trial that his filmmaking was purely journalistic in nature. The defence witnesses, who included the well-known Australian film director Peter Weir, all assured the court of his dedication and the enormous integrity of his documentaries.


“This six-year prison sentence is utterly unacceptable,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Nothing in this case bears scrutiny. He was arrested on completely spurious grounds. He was held provisionally for 14 months. And finally, the prosecution presented a totally specious case against him.”


Bastard added: “This trial has provided yet further evidence – if any were still needed – of the Cambodian justice system’s complete lack of independence in press freedom cases. We call on the authorities to overturn this conviction without delay if they want Cambodia to maintain any semblance of credibility on the international stage.”


"He could die in there"


The harsh sentence is all the more puzzling given the recent signs of detente from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime, after it crushed the entire independent press in order to assure itself of victory in the general elections held on 29 July. Former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin were freed on bail ten days ago after being held for nine months in the same prison as Ricketson.


“This is really sad for James,” Uon Chhin told RSF after learning of his sentence. “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.” Prey Sar is notorious for overcrowding, malnutrition and appalling hygiene.


Ricketson is suffering from recurrent skin ailments and seemed to have lost a lot of weight when he appeared in court during the trial. On the first anniversary of his arrest, in June, RSF relayed his son’s appeal for his release. "He could die in there," Jesse Ricketson said.


Cambodia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index, ten places lower than in 2017.