Australian filmmaker goes on trial in Cambodia

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Australian filmmaker James Ricketson sits in a prison truck upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Aug. 16. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Australian filmmaker James Ricketson sits in a prison truck upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Aug. 16. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (AP) — An Australian filmmaker went on trial in Cambodia on Thursday on charges of endangering national security after he was arrested last year for flying a drone to capture images of an opposition political rally.

James Ricketson was taken in an orange prison uniform to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a hearing on the charges, which in legal terms are tantamount to espionage, for which he could be sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. Ricketson’s lawyer applied for his release on bail, as he had unsuccessfully done several times previously, but was again turned down by the judge.

The 69-year-old documentary maker was arrested in June last year after he used a drone to film the final rally of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party before local elections. The party has since been dissolved as part of a sweeping crackdown on the opposition and media critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

The crackdown was widely seen as preparation for ensuring a victory by Hun Sen’s ruling party in last month’s general election, in which it won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. With Hun Sen’s extension of power accomplished, there has been speculation the courts — widely seen as under government control — might allow Ricketson to walk free. Ricketson had been seen as sympathetic to the opposition party.

Despite his extended pre-trial detention, the official start of Ricketson’s trial has been twice postponed at his request, the first time to inspect further evidence and the second to acquaint a new lawyer with the case. According to his family, Ricketson has been detained in a 6-by-16-meter (20-by-52-foot) cell along with 140 other prisoners, and in May he reportedly became ill with a chest ailment and was moved to the prison hospital.

When taken to court in June, he reiterated to reporters his insistence that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and was dismissive of the accusation of espionage.

But in a July 1 letter to Hun Sen published in the pro-government Khmer Times newspaper, he apologized for his “mistake” in his statements about his situation.

“May I please, respectfully, send my sincerest apologies to yourself and the Cambodian government. I now realize that my statements I have made in the press and other media are disruptive and ill informed. These statements were made from a place of foreign naivety and ignorance about the complexities and difficulties of governing Cambodia,” he wrote.

“I apologize unreservedly and without condition for any distress I may have caused as a result of my ignorance of Cambodian issues. If there is anything I can do to remedy my mistake, please let me know as I only want the best for you and Cambodia,” the letter said.