An Australian filmmaker helping a Cambodian couple retrieve two daughters from a church-run girls’ shelter in Phnom Penh was convicted of blackmail Wednesday for threatening to disparage the shelter online. He was given a suspended two-year prison sentence.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court also fined James Ricketson 6 million riel, about $1,500. The fully suspended prison sentence means he will spend no time in jail.
The filmmaker has been documenting the life of Chap Chanti since she was a young girl. He has been helping her try to retrieve her daughters, aged 11 and 12, from the She Rescue Home, run by the Brisbane-based Citipointe Church, for the past five years.
At his hearing last month, a Citipointe lawyer accused the filmmaker of blackmail for threatening to disparage the church online if it did not release the girls. The lawyer also argued against releasing the girls because he claimed letting Mr. Ricketson film them would put them at risk of being trafficked.
“After the hearing of James Ricketson on the charge of blackmail, the court finds him guilty,” Judge Keo Mony said.
Citipointe did not reply to a request for comment. Its lawyer for the case declined to comment.
Mr. Ricketson did not attend the announcement of the verdict. Contacted afterward, he said he was not informed of the planned announcement, even after a meeting with the judge that morning, which he said was the first time he was officially informed of the charge against him.
“I still have not been presented with any evidence…of how and when I tried to blackmail Citipointe Church,” he added.
Citipointe has defended its right to hold the girls on the strength of a memorandum of understanding it has with the Ministry of Social Affairs, but refuses to release a copy on the advice of its lawyers.
Also Wednesday, officials from the She Rescue Home and the local social affairs department visited Ms. Chanti’s home in Prey Veng province to assess the readiness of the family to take the girls back, said Bun Chork, the girls’ father.
“We want our daughters back home and reunited,” he said.
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