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
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

The jailing by Cambodia of James Ricketson, an Australian documentary film producer, for “espionage” was predictable. Shamefully, Australia did little to save him, a fact that hardly points to that country as a leader in the Pacific region. Australia should have condemned Cambodia for this politicized charge against one of its own citizens.

Throughout the trial, Ricketson persistently demanded an answer as to which country he was supposed to be spying for. The US? Australia? Certainly not for Vietnam! After all, Hun Sen has enjoyed the “support” of Vietnam since 1979. But neither the prosecutor nor the judges came up with an answer. Because there was none.

No one is interested in Cambodia’s so-called national security. After all, why would anyone seek to have an interest in Cambodia when it is already an enclave for bigger brother China? If a prospective spy needs information about Cambodia’s national interest, just turn to Facebook. Generals, ministers, wives, tycoons and every senior public servant are promoting and discussing everything about their personal, political agenda and discussions. There was no need to spend time flying a drone at a political rally.

The espionage charge against Ricketson was itself already unjust, let alone his inhumane detention. And the six-year prison sentence is beyond cruelty.

The case highlights ongoing attacks on legitimate free speech enshrined in the Cambodian constitution as required by the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. Further, it exposes the claim without a shadow of doubt that Cambodia is a nation that serves not the Cambodian people but only the ruling party.

These premises were supported when the judges queried why the Australian had written “bad things” about Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party. The line of inquiry by these so-called judges confirms they were overseeing a political court brought about for political reasons. Alternatively, the trial was economically motivated, as when Ricketson was asked why he had not focused on the “good developments in Cambodia.”

Despite knowing that all eyes would be on this case, the ‘judges’ showed no shame in pursuing a line of inquiry that made the court nothing more than a political mouthpiece of the ruling regime

Despite knowing that all eyes would be on this case, the “judges” showed no shame in pursuing a line of inquiry that made the court nothing more than a political mouthpiece of the ruling regime.

The lesson to learn from this decision, while there is no legal enunciation of rules or legal reasoning, is this: One can only be happy in Cambodia so long as one does not do things deemed to disturb political support of the current regime. The message is very clear: Keep away from the banned and dissolved opposition party.

Ricketson’s plight should have caused revolt among the Australian public, particularly members of the film and media industry. Taxpayers and the international community too should be angry with the Cambodian authorities. For the past 20 years, judiciary reform was one of the key areas that continued to receive high priority as part of the UN’s capacity-building assistance sponsored by the international community.

In 2004 the UN passed resolutions including one that urged the government of Cambodia:

“(a) To strengthen its efforts to establish the rule of law, including through the adoption and implementation of essential laws and codes for establishing a democratic society, and to address as a matter of priority, inter alia, the climate of impunity, and to enhance its efforts to investigate urgently and to prosecute, in accordance with due process of law and international human rights standards, all those who have perpetrated serious crimes, including violations of human rights;

“(b) To enhance further its judicial reform, especially by strengthening its efforts to ensure the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of the judicial system as a whole.”

After that, non-compliance by Hun Sen’s regime continued to attract further handshakes, deals and diplomatic recognition. As victims, Cambodians had to resort to justice systems outside their own jurisdiction. This was illustrated by a case filed by Richard Rogers, a British lawyer, before the International Criminal Court against the ruling regime for crimes relating to land grabbing.

As Ricketson’s fate is being sealed through neglect of the Australian government and the international community, one can only reflect on what the late US senator John McCain warned after Hun Sen mounted a deadly coup d’état in July 1997. McCain had this grave outlook on Cambodia:

“It must be illuminated the degree to which the international community bent over backwards and the Cambodian people’s interests sacrificed … that is Cambodia’s tragedy.

“The coup by Hun Sen represents a reversal of fortune that will prove, I fear, extremely difficult to resolve. The culture of violence that dominates major factions in Cambodia is alive and well and once again in power.”

Dissidents and political opponents are being framed, detained, imprisoned, named and shamed by the ruling party. Hateful speeches continue to spray against those deemed to “defame” or “dishonor” officials or departments.

One wonders, how can this judicial system be reformed? Or the entire regime? Is it too late already? Where are those countries who stand for democracy and human rights? Any potential reform of a system involves addressing shortfalls. But such shortfalls require criticisms or feedback that ultimately involve serious analysis. This is part of the free speech guaranteed to Cambodians under the Paris Peace Accords. One thing that the Accords did not provide was the government’s proprietary right to sue or prosecute its own citizens for “defamation.”

Sadly, this is Cambodia’s tragedy, as foretold by McCain. And Ricketson must now pay the price. After all, if an  official opposition with 3 million voters could be so easily banned and dissolved with no action from abroad except by the US government – and not Australia – what chance is there to get a filmmaker freed? Must the international community continue to afford legitimacy to a country whose leader threatens his people with civil war? And doesn’t the Cambodian monarch have a right to feel insulted when the prime minister issues that kind of threat?

John McCain continued to champion real change for Cambodia, with the US government introducing laws aimed at sanctioning Hun Sen and his regime. That was after 21 years of inaction. The late senator’s legacy, like that of the drafters of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, will now be engraved as part of the history of Cambodia’s tragedy and recovery.

And Ricketson’s fate now rests on what Australia does. In the event that Australia were to threaten some kind of action, history tells us, more likely than not, Ricketson would be released to appease Canberra. 

Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer based in Sydney.

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