A 68-year-old Australian filmmaker and outspoken government critic, reportedly seen flying a drone over opposition campaigners, could be facing up to a decade behind bars after being charged on Friday with a crime related to endangering national defense, a court official said.
James Ricketson was arrested on June 3 near Phnom Penh’s riverside after police claimed they became suspicious of his behavior and asked for his passport, which they say he failed to immediately produce.
Photographs posted online to government-aligned Fresh News appear to show Mr. Ricketson flying a drone over a horde of opposition CNRP campaigners on June 2, but police denied that this was the reason for his arrest and have since remained tight-lipped on the reason for his detention.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment.
However, Ly Sophana, spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said on Friday that Mr. Ricketson had been charged with a crime related to threatening the country’s security.
Deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok “decided to open the investigation after charging James Ricketson for collecting information prejudicial to national defense,” Mr. Sophana said.
If found guilty of the crime, which is listed under the treason and espionage section in the Criminal Code, he faces five to 10 years in prison.
According to legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, Mr. Ricketson faces an uphill battle to prove his innocence in this case.
Legal theory would suggest that to prove his guilt, the court must present evidence that he was collecting sensitive information, that it could negatively impact national defense or security and that he had the intent to provide the information to a foreign country, he said. “All these things must have concrete evidence—not only ‘maybe, maybe.’”
But in Cambodian reality, Mr. Sam Oeun said, “it’s assumed guilt. With any information, we can arrest; we can detain. Our system is like that.”
“Fair trial? He should find a lawyer,” he added. “A good lawyer.”
An outspoken critic of the Cambodian government and numerous child protection groups he has accused of corruption on his “Cambodia 440” blog, Mr. Ricketson has been involved in a number of run-ins with the law.
In 2014, he was handed a two-year suspended sentence for “threatening to dishonor” the Australian-based Citipointe Church operating in Cambodia by broadcasting accusations that the church sold children.
The filmmaker was also found guilty last year of defaming anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants for accusing the organization of manipulating witnesses.
In both cases, Mr. Ricketson claimed he had learned of the charges and the date of the court hearing after having been found guilty.
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)