PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — An Australian filmmaker arrested after flying a drone to photograph a Cambodian opposition party rally last year was convicted of spying and sentenced to six years in prison Friday.
James Ricketson had faced up to 10 years in prison. Almost two dozen jailed critics or opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government had been freed in recent weeks following a sweeping ruling party election victory, which had raised hopes of leniency in Ricketson's case.
Ricketson has been detained without bail since his arrest in June last year.
Prosecutors have indicated he was suspected of working with the opposition party or had worked directly for a foreign power, though that country was never specified in court. The charge against him, endangering national security, was tantamount in legal terms to espionage.
As the prison van left after the panel of judges delivered the verdict, Ricketson shouted to reporters the same question he often raised throughout his trial: "Who am I spying for?'
Before hearing the verdict, he told The Associated Press that based on the evidence and facts in the case, he should be set free.
His lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, said he would consult with his client on what to do next. He said there were two options: to file an appeal, or accept the verdict and ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to convey a request for a pardon to King Norodom Sihamoni. Ricketson's health was not good, he added.
Ricketson, 69, repeatedly insisted he had no political agenda and his work making documentary films was journalistic in nature. Character witnesses testified to his filmmaking work and financial generosity to several poor Cambodians.
The evidence presented against Ricketson appeared thin, but Cambodia's courts are considered highly politicized and their rulings often tightly align with the ruling party's agenda. A handful of personal emails seized from Ricketson suggested he was sympathetic to the country's political opposition and critical of Hun Sen's government, but revealed no sensitive or secret information. Several of his photos and videos showed security forces on duty, but only in publicly viewable situations.
New York-based group Human Rights Watch blasted the court's decision.
"This trial exposed everything that's wrong with the Cambodian judicial system: ridiculously excessive charges, prosecutors with little or no evidence, and judges carrying out political orders from the government rather than ruling based on what happens in court."
He also criticized Australia for failing to publicly and consistently challenge Cambodia in the case, saying Canberra's soft and quiet diplomacy with Southeast Asian dictators "is not just morally bankrupt - it's also totally ineffective."
Australia's new Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on a visit to Indonesia, told reporters that Ricketson "can expect to get all the consular and other support from the Australian government you would expect in these circumstances."
"As usual in these types of events it is best to deal with these things calmly and directly and in a way which best assists a citizen," he said.
Members of Ricketson's family at a news conference in Sydney said they were counting on their government's assistance.
"We are really looking for a lot more support moving forward from the new Australian government," said Bim Ricketson, James Ricketson's nephew. "We know that they are, they have their attention on this and we know that they are working on it, but now really is the time for a lot of support to be shown and as much pressure as possible to be brought to it, to find some kind of way out of this."
In addition to accusing Ricketson of spying, Cambodian prosecutors had indicated he also was suspected of working with the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which for a time had enough popularity among Cambodians to be a viable challenger to Hun Sen's rule. The party's dissolution by a court ruling last year assured Hun Sen's party of its sweeping victory in the July general elections, which returned Hun Sen to office for five more years.
The leniency shown to opponents and critics following the election followed a pattern of Hun Sen's long rule, with a harsh crackdown on opponents and critics preceding the vote and clemency and conciliatory moves after a resounding victory.
Ricketson testified in his defense that he made contacts with the opposition party strictly for journalistic purposes while making a documentary film. He recounted a filmmaking career dating to the 1970s, and presented acclaimed Australian movie director Peter Weir to attest to his professionalism in the field.
Ricketson's other character witnesses were several Cambodians, including his informally adopted daughter, who described how he had provided financial assistance to them and other poor members of Cambodian society.
Ricketson's son, Jesse, who attended his father's trial, expressed hope future developments may see his father's release.
"We just need a bit of time to absorb what's just happened and figure out the next step," he said. "As always, we're hoping and praying for generosity, and leniency, and compassion to be shown to my father in this situation, so hopefully we'll see something good happening in the future."