Detained Australian filmmaker James Ricketson speaks to journalists from a prison vehicle on his arrival at Phnom Penh court during his trial on August 16, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

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In the lead-up to his trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen once again employed a familiar strategy to appease the international community. Keen to display a softening attitude with high respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law just like genuinely democratic nations, Cambodia decided on a prisoner release – or in the case of James Ricketson, to “pardon” one.

Last week’s announcement of the “royal pardon” of the Australian film director from his six-year sentence – which had followed a summary trial leading to his conviction of “espionage” last month – was nothing short of a political ploy aimed at legitimizing Hun Sen’s recent election and his regime as an internationally recognized government.

The actions of this megalomaniac leader have seen Ricketson being used as a pawn and then released – in the hope that Hun Sen’s “clean” image would cajole world leaders at the UN meeting. That is how the dictator has acquired his “political charisma” for the last 27 years – as a “strongman.” However, the world has yet to witness what the “strongman” has achieved when the country is surviving on foreign aid and recently depended on China as its primary source of sustenance.

While Ricketson’s right to be released is fundamental, the “pardon” should not exonerate Hun Sen and his regime for imprisoning the Australian in the first place. There was no crime committed when he flew a drone at an opposition rally. The reality was that Hun Sen just could not stand the sight of Ricketson, a sympathizer of a helpless and banned opposition party.

At all times the charge was political, and so is the pardon. With the judiciary and the entire country under his grip, justice and development are always in Hun Sen’s court.

As for Ricketson, he is an innocent man who has been named and shamed by a dictator aiming to showcase his notoriety as a strongman, which must be rejected and condemned by civilized nations.

The so-called royal pardon, in Ricketson’s case, unlike other recent political releases, was not signed by the Cambodian monarch – not that it matters. But the pardon was nothing short of a “political pardon” – executed by Hun Sen’s top official – endorsed by none other than the dictator himself.

After the “pardon” of James Ricketson, the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, reportedly said: “I thank my counterpart, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, for his government’s positive consideration of Mr Ricketson’s petition.”

It is very odd for an Australian cabinet minister to thank a dictator for putting one of her citizens behind bars for a crime she should have known he did not commit

It is very odd for an Australian cabinet minister to thank a dictator for putting one of her citizens behind bars for a crime she should have known he did not commit. In fact it was an absurd remark from a government that did not stand up for its own innocent citizen in the first instance.

Australia’s total silence on this matter will be translated as an acceptance of an authoritarian regime that continues to infringe openly on the impartiality of the so-called judiciary. Clearly, the entire legal process was not just flawed but entrenched in endemic corruption such that no democratic government should stand by and encourage one of its innocent citizens to go through the process. The process lacked any credible independent institutions through which its victims could have been afforded the opportunity to argue the case in accordance with the expected international standards of jurisprudence.

Despite convicting Ricketson of “espionage,” the sitting judges made no reference to case law or jurisprudence. The reality is, perhaps there is no established precedent on the subject matter. The rule of law and judicial processes are all mere concepts. In reality the practice of those laws is contingent on a person’s political membership and social status with outcomes driven by a neo-patrimonial system. Unfortunately for Cambodia, it is this kind of statement by Australia’s foreign minister, that is, soft diplomacy, that has contributed to the rise of this megalomaniac leadership.

Any suggestion that Australia’s soft diplomacy contributed to Ricketson being “pardoned” is a figment of imagination. Hun Sen only reacts when he knows his international legitimacy is at stake. Australia failed to take that step. Whatever the reason for Ricketson’s release, compared with Kem Sokha, the leader of the banned opposition, who is currently on bail, Ricketson is no political threat to Hun Sen.

Nonetheless a prevailing factor of Ricketson’s “pardon” came about after recent resolutions by the European Parliament. On September 13, the Parliament passed a 13-point resolution, calling among other actions for Ricketson to be “released,” not “pardoned.” This was historic – given that the Australian Parliament did not move any motion demanding that Hun Sen release one its own citizens. The European Parliament mentioned Ricketson’s name on three occasions in the resolutions.

These resolutions reduced Australia, which claims to be a leader in the Asia-Pacific region, to nothing more than a pussy-footing global citizen when confronted by a dictator. In reality Canberra retained the status quo with ASEAN’s new emerging authoritarianism at the expense of one of its own citizens. It shows that Canberra places its policy of engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations higher than support for its own citizens. There might have been some background low-level diplomatic encounters between Canberra and Phnom Penh in an effort to release Ricketson, but to accept his spending 15 months behind bars was unacceptable.

Relevantly applicable to Ricketson is the European Parliament’s Resolution 6, which “calls on the government of Cambodia to release  [emphasis added], without delay, all citizens who have been detained for exercising their human rights, including James Ricketson, and to drop all charges against them.”

The European Parliament intended to impose sanctions including removal of special tax concessions granted to Cambodia’s garment exports. This measure, if implemented, would undermine Hun Sen’s political legitimacy in regards to his supposed concern for the economic prosperity of ordinary Cambodian citizens. However, there would be other economic effects. The textile industry would likely suffer shutdowns or lay off workers as the European Union restricts imports. A large workforce would be forced to work abroad in countries including Thailand and South Korea.

Members of the Cambodian-Australian community protest in Martin Place, Sydney, on September 15, 2018. Photo: Sawathey Ek

While Canberra was busy with its pantomime leadership, the local Cambodian-Australian community took to Sydney’s streets and held a protest at Martin Place on September 15 in support of the EU’s actions and demanded that Ricketson be released.

Now that Hun Sen has pardoned Ricketson, the question remains: Will Australia recognize his regime?

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Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek OAM is a principal of E K Lawyers (Sydney). He fled Cambodia in 1979 and arrived in Sydney as a refugee in 1983.