Emails from Australian accused of spying James Ricketson show no evidence of Cambodian plot

Emails from Australian accused of spying James Ricketson show no evidence of Cambodian plot

Emails from Australian accused of spying James Ricketson show no evidence of Cambodian plot

Updated 21 February 2018, 7:45 AEDT

Emails from an Australian man accused of espionage in Cambodia show a strongly worded dislike of Prime Minister Hun Sen and enthusiastic support for the opposition but nothing remotely akin to spying.

Key points:

  • ABC gains access to emails sent by filmmaker between 2012-2014
  • Emails show the filmmaker had access to opposition leader and was excited to be part of a major news event
  • The Australian was generous in praise of opposition and critical of ruling party

James Ricketson has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest in June, 2017, prompting Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to write to the Cambodian Government to express concern about the case.

If convicted, Mr Ricketson could be jailed for 10 years but he denies the charges.

For the past two weeks, the 68-year-old Australian has attended a Phnom Penh court to answer questions that have focussed on correspondence from his seized laptop.

The ABC has gained access to 12 emails from Mr Ricketson dated from 2012 to 2014.

Several emails are from mid-2013, in the lead-up to an election, when Mr Ricketson was filming opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy for a planned documentary, that was never made.

"It is fascinating to be behind the scenes and to be observing the way in which Rainsy is plotting to become Prime Minister," wrote Mr Ricketson to a family member.

"He may or may not pull of[f] what he has planned [a bloodless coup] but if he does he will have Hun Sen scratching his head and wondering how he didn't see it coming," the Australian wrote.

Hun Sen's ruling party lost significant ground in the 2013 vote, and again in local elections last year, prompting the sweeping crackdown that has embroiled Mr Ricketson.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha has been detained on treason charges and the party dissolved, all on the vague accusation of a US-backed "colour revolution" similar to that in the Ukraine.

The Prime Minister has vowed to stay in power for another decade — having already ruled for 33 — and has threatened civil war if his party loses at the ballot box.

'Hero' worship

Back in 2013, Mr Ricketson became swept up in Cambodia's election fever, particularly as he followed festive campaign rallies across the kingdom.

"[Rainsy] was greeted as a hero and it was clear that the hopes and dreams of so many people for genuine change rest on his and his party's shoulders," Mr Ricketson wrote.

"From my conversations with Rainsy it is clear that he has no intention of giving up without the fight of his life," wrote the Australian, in a blog post that he also emailed to Mr Rainsy.

Several of the emails obtained by the ABC involved short dialogues with Mr Rainsy.

"Could you please send me a photo where I stood on a big truck addressing the crowd at a market this afternoon?" Mr Rainsy wrote to Mr Ricketson.

"I am not sure which truck you mean but I will come over to your place and perhaps we can find it in my footage," the filmmaker replied.

Mr Ricketson's filming of opposition events was done openly and many other journalists did similar work at the time.

One email from November 2013 — when the political mood had soured — asked Mr Rainsy for information about when a planned demonstration was to be held.

There is no indication in the emails that Mr Ricketson helped organise these opposition events or offered specific advice.

The overwhelming tone is of a man thrilled to be part of a major news event, generous with his praise of Mr Rainsy and critical of the ruling party.

"I am following the story and am very close to Rainsy — by with I mean, I see him and film with him every day," Mr Ricketson wrote to a friend on August 4.

'The Dictator and the Democrat'

To Mr Ricketson, circa 2013, the heroes and villains were clear.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen is the Darth Vader of Cambodian politics … opposition leader Sam Rainsy is Luke Skywalker," Mr Ricketson wrote on August 18, 2013.

"Hun Sen … is an old fashioned Dictator out of central casting," he wrote, in a draft of what would become a blog article titled The Dictator and the Democrat.

The email accused the Hun Sen regime of torturing opponents, citing Amnesty International and journalist Nate Thayer.

The draft was written to a friend to see if Mr Ricketson's summary of Cambodian politics made sense to outside eyes; there is nothing new in the superficial analysis besides the colourful turn of phrase.

Other emails include pitches for a documentary to a major news channel, criticism of the ABC and chats with friends about the cost of travel in Myanmar.

Mr Ricketson's years of self-appointed crusading on a wide range of issues — including the guilt of a convicted paedophile and the conduct of child rights organisations — have certainly made enemies.

He has been convicted twice of defamation in Cambodia and a long-running tirade against Screen Australia led to a restraining order.

The current investigation continues in Phnom Penh and there are other emails of interest to the court the ABC has not seen.

But these 12 emails provide no recognisable evidence of espionage.

Much of the material is reflected in his blog posts and in conversations he had with many expatriates around Phnom Penh — suggesting that if he was a spy, he was not a very good one.