A Brisbane-based Christian church refusing to release the children of a Cambodian couple from its rescue shelter accused Australian filmmaker James Ricketson of blackmail Wednesday during a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Chap Chanti and husband Bun Chork sent their two daughters to stay at Citipointe Church’s Phnom Penh shelter, the She Rescue Home, during a period of dire poverty in 2008 and have been trying to get them back since 2009 with Mr. Ricketson’s help.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Citipointe lawyer Kong Rady accused Mr. Ricketson, who was absent from the proceedings, of attempting to blackmail the church by threatening to disparage it in his personal online blog unless it released the children back into the care of their parents.
“James said he would tell the [shelter’s] donors the bad things at the shelter,” Mr. Rady said. “James threatened the shelter with this email. The donors would consider whether to keep supporting.”
Mr. Ricketson has laid out his claims at length on his blog, accusing the shelter of illegally detaining the girls against the parents’ will.
The shelter is financially supported by the Global Development Group, an Australian NGO.
Mr. Rady said Mr. Ricketson was also angry with the church for refusing to return the girls to their parents because it was hindering a documentary film he has been working on about Ms. Chanti, their mother, since she was a young girl.
Mr. Rady then argued that letting the girls return home so that Mr. Ricketson could film them would somehow put them at risk of being trafficked but he did not explain how or why he believed such a thing might befall the children.
“They would be at risk of trafficking if the center lets him film them and it would affect their rights and honor,” Mr. Rady said, again without explaining his argument.
Mr. Ricketson is currently out of the country and had no one representing him at the hearing.
Contacted by email, Mr. Ricketson said he had no idea he had been accused of or charged with blackmail, let alone that a hearing in the case had been scheduled.
“I didn’t know anything of this particular charge and nor have I received any communication regarding it,” said Mr. Ricketson.
Mr. Ricketson is currently working on a documentary film about CNRP leader Sam Rainsy.
At the hearing, Judge Keo Mony said a summons inviting Mr. Ricketson was taken by police to the Tuol Kok district guesthouse where he was believed to be staying at the time. According to the judge, police reported back to the court that another man at the guesthouse allegedly declined the summons on Mr. Ricketson’s behalf. Contacted after the hearing, the judge declined to comment.
This is not the only case against Mr. Ricketson.
Also at Citipointe Church’s request, the municipal court has charged the filmmaker with hindering its work helping victims of prostitution and human trafficking and those at risk because of his efforts to have the girls released from the shelter and returned to their parents.
Mr. Ricketson has denied that charge, insisting the girls did not meet the criteria of having been trafficked or being at risk of trafficking and should not be held in the center.
The two girls, he said, “are not victims of human trafficking; they are the daughters of poor parents who were offered short-term help by Citipointe Church.”
In a 2008 letter to Citipointe, Ms. Chanti asks the church to take care of her two daughters because she was poor and offers no other reason.
Church officials have refused to comment on the case because it was still being litigated and have provided no explanation of how the two children qualify as victims—or those at risk of—trafficking.
Ms. Chanti calls Mr. Ricketson, who has financially supported her family for years, her godfather, and says she supports his film and his efforts to have her daughters returned home.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Judge Mony said he would deliver a judgment in the blackmail case on April 2. The charge carries a prison sentence of two to five years.