Family of Australian filmmaker James Ricketson hope for early release from Cambodian jail


The family of James Ricketson, the Australian filmmaker on trial in Cambodia, are hopeful he could be freed if the court accepts a plea of misdemeanor.

Australian James Ricketson faces up to 10 years in a Cambodian prison,  accused of spying - but a plea of misdemeanor, if accepted, could see his sentence reduced to just one year.

His trial begun in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh on Thursday. 

After 14 months behind bars and two trial delays, it's been a long time coming for both Mr Ricketson and his family  in Australia. 

"It's a massive relief that this is finally happening," his brother Peter Ricketson told SBS.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson is escorted by prison guards.
Australian filmmaker James Ricketson is escorted by prison guards.

"Relief and anxiety. We are concerned for his mental and physically well being." 

In May, Mr Ricketson was moved from a cramped prison cell to a hospital within his jail.

With his health fast deteriorating, his lawyer is seeking bail, requesting his client's release once more before the trial begun.

Bail has been denied again, however.

The Cambodian government has accused Mr Ricketson of "endangering national security" after he flew a drone above a political rally last year.

His arrest was seen by critics as part of a wider crackdown against the opposition, ahead of last month's general election.

But with the voting now over, there's speculation the government-controlled courts could allow him to walk free.

The Ricketson family are clinging to the possibility a plea of misdemeanor will be accepted, because the lesser charge only carries a one year sentence - which the Australian has already served.

"That is the hope but we can't be certain," Peter Ricketson said.

"We were under the impression that the bail might be successful but that was rejected so we're not sure if they will accept a plea of misdemeanor or not."

Peter Weir takes the stand

Acclaimed Australian film director Peter Weir has taken the stand in Mr Erickson's defense.

A long-time friend, he faced a tough line of questioning, despite appearing only as a character witness. 

"That was unexpected," Peter Ricketson said.

"As a character witness he supporting James and his personality."

The prosecution grilled Mr Weir on Mr Ricketson's political position, and was asked whether he had ever received Australian government funding for his films in Cambodia. 

Mr Weir said that question should be directed toward Mr Ricketson. 

His brother insists that he was never involved in propaganda. 

"James is not a spy, he's never made a political movie in his life but he will use social and political background to tell a personal story, and that's exactly what he was doing," he said. 

"His films around Phnom Penh, whether they are street kids or a political demonstration, are purely context for what he was trying to do." 

As the trial wrapped up for the day a defiant Mr Ricketson questioned the entire basis of his prosecution. 

"I've still been presented with no evidence and I still don't know what country I'm supposed to be spying for. Is it Australia, is it the United States, which country am I spying for?" he shouted at reporters through the barred prison van. 

There may be more clarity next week, when the trial will resumes.

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