Cambodia pardons Australian filmmaker convicted of espionage

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2018, file photo, Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, right, is helped off a prisoner truck upon his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia has pardoned Ricketson Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, after being sentenced last month to six years in jail on an espionage charge in a trial that was widely criticized as unfair (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia granted a royal pardon on Friday to Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, who was sentenced last month to six years in prison on spying charges in a trial widely criticized as unfair.

It was not immediately clear if he has already been released from Prey Sar prison on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh.

The pardon is the latest in a series of releases of political prisoners directed in recent weeks by Prime Minister Hun Sen after his ruling party’s landslide general election victory at the end of July.

The election, which gave the Cambodian People’s Party all 125 seats in the National Assembly, was decried by Western nations and rights groups as unfair and undemocratic because the sole credible opposition party had been dissolved by the courts last year at the instigation of Hun Sen’s government.

Hun Sen, who has been in power for 33 years, has a record of cracking down on his opponents when he feels threatened, then easing up when he has secured his political goals and seeks to tone down criticism of his actions. The recent releases come as he prepares to attend this month’s U.N. General Assembly session in New York, where he intends to defend his mandate as legitimate.

Ricketson, 69, was arrested last year after flying a drone to photograph an opposition party rally. His arrest came as Hun Sen’s government was beginning a crackdown on critics and political rivals as the ruling party’s prospects for the general election appeared shaky. The opposition had made a strong showing in 2017 local elections, building on its surprisingly strong challenge in the 2013 general election.

The pardon issued Friday was signed by Senate President Say Chhum, the acting head of state in the absence of King Norodom Sihamoni, who is reported to be visiting China. Pardons are normally issued at the request of Hun Sen.

Ricketson’s trial was described as farcical by his sympathizers, largely because prosecutors never specified whom he was allegedly spying for and failed to present any evidence that he possessed or transmitted any secrets. He had been detained without bail since June last year in harsh conditions.

It appeared that Ricketson was targeted by the government for perceived sympathy for the opposition Cambodian National Resue Party — the group that was dissolved last year — whose activities he had been filming.

Ricketson repeatedly insisted he had no political agenda and his work making documentary films was journalistic in nature.

His Aug. 31 conviction was met with only lukewarm public concern from Australia’s prime minister and foreign minister. Their public stance was criticized, but also led to speculation that an understanding might have been reached with Cambodian authorities for Ricketson’s early release.

Ricketson’s lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, said his client would go first to Phnom Penh and then travel to Australia.

“James will go back to his home country after he is released, but later he will be back to Cambodia because the pardon letter doesn’t bar him from re-entering Cambodia,” Kong Sam Onn said. However, there is no official statement guaranteeing he will be readmitted.

Ricketson had said during his trial that he wished to re-establish a project that he had launched before his arrest to buy some land to resettle several poor Cambodian families who have been living at a garbage dump. He and several character witnesses had testified that he provided financial assistance to several poverty-stricken Cambodians.

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