A local representative for the Brisbane-based Citipointe Church on Monday confirmed that it was behind a lawsuit against an Australian filmmaker for allegedly hindering its efforts to help prostitutes or those at risk of falling into prostitution.
James Ricketson, 64, was served with a summons on Friday informing him that he had been charged with hindering an unnamed organization’s work under Cambodia’s anti-human trafficking law and calling him to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning on March 7.
Chan Sophea, the court clerk to Investigating Judge Pu Povsun, declined to identify the plaintiff Monday. Both she and the judge said they could not remember the identity of the plaintiff in the case against Mr. Ricketson.
Bun Saora, however, a staff member with Citipointe in Cambodia, where the church operates a residence for girls considered at risk, confirmed that her organization was behind the suit.
“I know that Citipointe is the plaintiff in this case at the court against James Ricketson,” Ms. Saora said.
Mr. Saora referred additional questions to Citipointe Acting Country Director Lacey Garratt, who could not be reached. Church officials in Brisbane have not replied to request for comment since Sunday.
The feud between Citipointe and Mr. Ricketson dates back to 2009, when the filmmaker began efforts to help a Cambodian couple retrieve their two daughters who were placed in the church’s care during a period of dire poverty.
Mr. Ricketson says he has been documenting the mother’s life since she was a poor, homeless girl in the early 1990s for a pending documentary and accuses the church of keeping her daughters illegally.
Chap Chanti, the mother of the two girls aged 11 and 12, confirmed that she has been trying to get her daughters back from the church for the past five years to no avail. Ms. Chanti also said the church has prevented her from visiting her children.
“They refuse to send them back home and I am their mother. Why don’t they allow me to take them back?” she asked Monday.
Ms. Chanti said Mr. Ricketson has been helping to financially support her family since she was a young girl and rebuked Citipointe for suing him for helping her to retrieve her daughters.
Her husband, Bun Chork, said they have approached both the church and anti-human trafficking police at the Ministry of Interior to try and get their two daughters returned, also to no avail. Mr. Chork said they finally turned to a lawyer to help them file a complaint against Citipointe a few months ago. He said the family had also got help from local rights group Licadho.
Naly Pilorge, the director, said her NGO had given the family some basic legal advice but did not help them file the court complaint. Ms. Pilorge said the financial conditions that might have given the church some pause about returning the children had since improved, “so the mother has some rights, too.”
Though the church has declined to comment on the new charge against Mr. Ricketson, it has defended its practices in the case of the two children.
In an email to a reporter in May, Citipointe Executive Pastor Brian Mulheran said the church was adhering to its memorandum of understanding MoU with the government and all relevant government directives.
“We are unable to divulge specific sensitive details relating to any specific girls in our care,” Mr. Mulheran said at the time. “However, we can state that all the girls within our care are legally in our care on behalf of the Cambodian Government under the legal authorization through the MOU and the related policies and prakas. We do not hold any girls in our care who are not legally permitted to be held in our care,” he said.
Mr. Mulheran added at the time that it was the church’s “greatest desire” to return the girls to their parents but was ordered by anti-human trafficking police not to do so because authorities had already started investigating Mr. Ricketson for alleged “hindering of the reintegration process in this specific case.”
Mr. Mulheran did not explain exactly how Mr. Ricketson was hindering the girls’ reintegration.
Lao Lim, head of juvenile protection at the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, declined to comment on the case because it was under court investigation.
In a letter addressed to Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia, Alison Burrows, and dated Monday, Mr. Ricketson says he could “easily” prove his innocence of the charge of obstruction by furnishing the court with the more than 150 correspondences he has had with Citipointe over the past five years.
He has also sent the court a letter to say he would not attend his scheduled questioning unless the court explained the accusations against him and revealed who was suing him.
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)