Australian Filmmaker Accused of Spying via Drone Denied Bail in Cambodia

He was arrested on spying charges for piloting a drone over a rally last June.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

Last June, Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was arrested in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on spying charges after piloting a drone over a Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) campaign rally. Today, the 68-year old director was denied bail, prompting serious concern by his family and fears of thorough prison-time. 

According to the South China Morning Post, Supreme Court Judge Soeng Panhavuth rejected the filmmaker’s request for bail on grounds that “the investigation is still underway,” and that Ricketson was charged “with acts of collecting information which may undermine national defense.” While operating an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Phnom Penh is completely illegal without proper, governmental permission, and Ricketson is facing a potential prison-term between five and ten years if convicted of espionage—it seems a punishment too severe for recording basic aerial footage at a political rally. Of course, drone laws differ vastly in various regions of the world, which makes this a frustrating situation: Ricketson broke the law and is facing the agreed upon punishment legislated into Cambodian law.

A partner of Ricketson’s son Jesse reportedly told journalists outside the court that “The Ricketson family…is obviously very disappointed by the outcome of today’s proceedings,” and that the elderly man’s physical well-being is threatened by the “incredibly cramped conditions” of the facility that Ricketson is sharing with 140 other individuals. It's unfortunate that this dire, preventable political situation wasn't averted through the simple use of an easily available smartphone app that can help users navigate regional drone laws, though it's presumable that Ricketson was, indeed, aware of the illegality, and continued anyway. Even if that was not the case, however, the punishment here seems severe, on a humane basis.

According to the South China Morning Post, Ricketson had been working on a documentary in Cambodia (his home of five years) and faced the local courts numerous times before. In 2014, he was assigned a two-year suspended prison sentence. The allegations here aren’t drone-related, but certainly shocking; allegedly, Ricketson was threatening to broadcast allegations that an Australian church working in Cambodia was involved in child-trafficking. Two years later, he was fined for defaming Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), a non-profit that searches for pedophiles. Ultimately, Ricketson is in serious trouble here for violating laws that, while democratically agreed upon, seem fairly harsh. Regardless of his true motivations, or his prior legal history, we’ll keep an eye on this story. Stay tuned.