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Agitators challenge authoritarian regimes at their own peril

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Wednesday, 5 September 2018

In recent days two Australians have received retribution from Asian governments for perceived political activism.

A judge in Cambodia last week convicted 69 year old Australian filmmaker James Ricketson of spying, and sentenced him to six years in prison. Meanwhile, in the (more democratic) Philippines, Australian nun Patricia Fox has again been ordered to leave after angering President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ricketson was detained last year after flying a drone to photograph an opposition party political rally. The prosecution had accused him of working as a filmmaker in Cambodia for years as a front for spying, and pro-government media labelled him an "important spy". At trial, prosecutors pointed to Ricketson's photos of police, emails to Cambodian opposition officials and a letter to then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull urging him to rescind an invitation for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to visit Australia.


Previously (in 2014) Ricketson was fined A$1,500 and given a suspended two year prison sentence for allegedly threatening to broadcast allegations that a church working in Cambodia had sold children. Two years later, he was fined after a court found him guilty of defaming an anti-paedophile NGO by accusing the group of manipulating witnesses. [His earlier documentary Sleeping with Cambodia (implicitly critical of "money-wasting NGOs" in Cambodia, which included the high profile World Vision) was broadcast on ABC in 1996.]

Media reporting of his recent trial has expressed shock and outrage. "Unbelievable - which country am I spying for?" Ricketson reportedly asked out loud in court. Ricketson's son Jesse reportedly called the result "devastating". Human Rights Watch also decried the court's findings. It said that the trial was a "ludicrous charade" that "exposed everything that's wrong with the Cambodian judicial system", claiming that Ricketson was used as a scapegoat to crack down on political opposition.

The outrage can be justified but we can hardly claim to be surprised. The reality is that Cambodia has been ruled for 33 years by Hun Sen in a dictatorship covered by a thin veneer of democracy. His ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) recently won all parliamentary seats in a largely unopposed general election. The CNRP, the only viable opposition party (which almost won in 2013), was dissolved last year by the Supreme Court and its leader detained on treason charges. Cambodia is one of a number of East Asian countries where dissent is not tolerated and where the judiciary is not free of political influence.

Ricketson, in playing the role of an activist in Cambodia, was playing with fire. I don't doubt that he holds the moral high-ground on this issue. Equally it must be observed that the regime holds most of the aces.

Peter Greste, the Australian journalist, who was jailed in Egypt for more than a year while working for Al Jazeera, says the Australian Government "clearly needs to do more" to assist Ricketson. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and new Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne, both said Ricketson would receive consular support. Greste said in his case with Egypt, the Government did not have much sway, but in Ricketson's case (due to Australia's influence in the region) the situation is different. " It's got far more levers … in Cambodia's case, diplomatic levers, economic levers and so on," Greste said.

Take the case of nun Patricia Fox. Sister Patricia has long spoken up for the rights of workers, farmers and students in the Philippines, and says the role of the religious is to be with people who are suffering. The deportation order accuses Sister Patricia of openly and actively participating in activities such as rallies, press conferences and fact-finding missions which violated the terms and conditions of her missionary visa. Last month, the Philippines Department of Justice had nullified a previous order to deport her.


More drastic is the situation of Reuters (Asian) journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were found guilty by a Myanmar judge of breaching a law on state secrets and sentenced to seven years in prison It is widely believed that they were set-up by police as payback for the journalists' reporting on killings of Rohingya Muslims.

To get back to Ricketson, a clue to his prospects for early release lies in the recent release of 14 opposition lawmakers and activists jailed before the election. They sent apology letters to Hun Sen, which were subsequently sent on to the monarch. His lawyer reportedly told reporters waiting outside the court that Ricketson plans to request a royal pardon from the Cambodian King. His son Jesse said he could not comment on whether an apology letter to Hun Sen was forthcoming to secure his father's release.

With Ricketson reportedly in poor health, he faces "Hobson's choice". There is a real risk that he might die in prison before completing his sentence. Alternatively, he might conclude that he has little choice but to apologise.

Eating some humble pie might be the only sensible alternative to martyrdom in prison for Ricketson. Meanwhile, Patricia Fox can appeal again.

It is not clear, however, whether much in the way of viable options (to avoiding a long stint in prison) are available to the Reuters journalists.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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