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Our man in Cambodia

Australian documentary filmmaker James Ricketson spent 15 months inside a Cambodian gaol after being arrested on charges of spying. Sentenced in August to six years in prison in a trial condemned by human rights activists, he was freed to return to Australia in late September after being granted a royal pardon. Fellow documentary maker Curtis Levy visited Ricketson in the notorious prison where the veteran filmmaker was held along with 30 other political prisoners.


My friend James Ricketson has been making films in Cambodia for over 20 years. I had often told him I would love to visit him and meet some of the people he was filming. He had told me about one family he was very close to, Chanti and Da and their nine children. He had first met Chanti when she was an 8-year-old street kid begging on the streets of Phnom Penh.

It was James’ ongoing concern about the plight of street kids that first led him to visit Cambodia. His interest in helping street kids had begun when he adopted his daughter Roxanne. It was after he heard of an inspiring program helping street kids in Phnom Penh that he met Chanti. He has been supporting Chanti, her husband Da, a tuk tuk driver, their family, and many other families in need ever since. Prior to his arrest he had been filming Chanti’s life for a documentary film ‘Chanti’s World’.

Friends and locals were dismayed when James was arrested. Call, another tuk tuk driver, told me he had burst into tears when he heard the news. He had often driven James around Phnom Penh and knew of numerous good works he had carried out for poor people down on their luck. Roxanne, herself a homeless teenager when James first offered to be her guardian years before, played a leading role in organising the campaign that helped raise awareness of James’ imprisonment in Cambodia.

When I finally did visit James, he was locked away in the grim Prey Sar prison charged with being a spy. The government had taken exception to him using a drone to film a political rally. Earlier he had done some filming with the now exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. With elections coming up, the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was determined to ensure that neither the opposition leader nor his party could oppose him. Just to make sure, he jailed the new opposition leader and several other opposition figures in the lead up to the July elections. Little wonder that when the elections were held Hun Sen won all of the 125 seats.

At the time of my visit to Phnom Penh articles in the local papers were reporting crackdowns on protesters and those opposed to the government. While James was in prison awaiting trial, the government featured his name and image in propaganda films accusing the opposition party and the CIA of colluding to foment a coup. During his trial James would complain to the court and the Australian government about the Cambodian government blackening his name and reputation while court proceedings were still going on.  

In Prey Sar James lived in a cell 16 by 5 metres which housed 140 prisoners sleeping on plastic mats on the floor. There were three squat toilets in the cell. If he needed to get up during the night to have a pee, he had to walk crablike between the sleeping bodies to get to one of these stinking toilets. There were at least two mentally ill prisoners in the jail who were chained to a pillar most of the time. Their screams could be heard through the night. In the last weeks of his incarceration, James was transferred to the prison hospital with lung and skin problems.

Setting out each day to visit James in the prison meant an hour by tuk tuk over bumpy dusty roads, stopping at local markets to buy the fresh food suggested by his son Jesse who had had moved to Phnom Penh with his partner Alexander to help James with his trial. Jesse had given me a list of food items that James would appreciate, mandarins, New Zealand apples, carrots, etc, and I would arrive at the prison gates with a big bag of fruit and vegetables and a few books.

Just getting into the prison involved quite a procedure. First you presented yourself to the guard at the boom gates at the front. After he was satisfied with your bona fides and waved you through you then went to an office to present a copy of your passport and have your fingerprints taken. Then there were more guard stations, first to register your bag of food and then to take away any forbidden items, such as phones and books that might be a little too thick. (Over time I realised that only very thin novels were allowed, because larger novels could conceal a weapon or drugs). Each of these procedures took around 30 minutes (and around $20 given in “gifts” to facilitate entry), before you joined the crowd of wives, relatives and friends who had made it through to a reception area inside the prison.

Eventually James appeared in his orange prison garb, hair largely shaven because of the heat. We hadn’t seen each other for several months. It was great to see that he still had his energy and a degree of optimism. I was seeing him on a good day in terms of his mood. Over a period of three visits and a hurried conversation at the Appeals Court, I saw his mood change from one of almost constructive optimism to anger and frustration. On the one hand there would be enthusiasm about the research and writing he was able to do during his incarceration, but then reality would sink in with the continuing frustrations of the Appeals Court proceedings.

Waiting outside the court (I was forbidden entry into the courtroom). I could see his agitated body language through the window. It was fast becoming clear to James that despite the fact that the government had no real evidence against him, he would in all likelihood be stuck in Prey Sar prison for some time. Some prisoners were offered the chance of a release if they offered some form of “restitution” to the authorities. James seemed determined not to enter any such arrangement, on the grounds that he didn’t want to be part of what he saw as a corrupt system.

During James’ seven day trial (lengthy, for Cambodia), there was very little evidence presented for the prosecution, despite the fact that they had trolled through all his emails and Facebook entries. But they did discover a few outspoken comments about Hun Sen’s regime. While in Cambodia James had published four blogs and posted several YouTube videos, many of which had not been favourable to Hun Sen’s government. 

The prosecution seized on an email James wrote to then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull which suggested he should refuse to meet Hun Sen because “a photograph of Turnbull and Hun Sen will last forever”. The email said it would be inappropriate for the Prime Minister to be seen to be friendly with the leader of a country where there was very little rule of law. It was wrong for Australia to dump refugees in such a poverty stricken lawless country.  The Cambodian government had been willing to take the refugees after the Australian government had paid $40 million to Hun Sen’s government to facilitate the deal.

In the end, despite sentencing James to six years jail on the spying charges, the court came up with no evidence either that James was a spy or which country he was supposed to be spying for. Having known James for 30 years, he is the last person one would want to recruit as a spy. He is outspoken about his personal beliefs in human rights and campaigning for justice of the poor. Even now that he has been pardoned by the King of Cambodia and is safely back in Australia, he is determined to continue his work for Chanti and other poor people in Cambodia. He has launched an appeal, called Family By Family, to raise money to help the homeless people who spend their days scavenging on the huge rubbish dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The cost of building houses in Cambodia is only $7,000 for each house. The link for the appeal James has set up to help buy houses for these people, many of whom he befriended during his time in Phnom Penh, is:

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