In an earlier post from August 2017 on the blog which you can find if you click here film-maker Phillip Noyce passed on news of James Ricketson’s incarceration in a Cambodian prison. There is gathering interest in his circumstances. Now, six months later, film-maker Mike Rubbo has visited James and posted this report on Facebook.
Last week I went to Cambodia to visit James Ricketson in prison. Visits are possible on Tuesdays Thursdays and Saturdays. I went on Tuesday with Alexandra Lou, the partner of Jesse Ricketson, his son, and twice on Thursday with my daughter who happened to be in the country.
The prison is about 40 minutes out of Phnom Penh by Tuk Tuk on a flat and dusty plain. It does not present as ominous. Apparently, in preparation for a UN visit, the exterior walls have been painted sky-blue, and one walks between relatively low walls of this colour towards a processing area where visitors wait and mingle.
Since I was visiting the men's prison, around me in the open courtyard were mostly women and children. There begins the process of presenting a photocopy of one's passport, of being fingerprinted with red ink, leaving the bag of food that one has brought for the prisoner at a certain door, checking one's own valuables, phone et cetera, all of which takes about 45 minutes and is relatively relaxed
Next, you have to listen carefully because James's name will be called out across the courtyard in a way that is hardly recognizable to our ears. At this point, one crosses the yard to the prison building to gain access to one of two narrow meeting areas. These are corridors with a counter in front of screens, airy but confined. I experienced both corridors, perspex shields in one case and metal screens and perspex combined in the other, through which in each case you talk to your chosen inmate.
The high level of babble makes hearing hard and one is distracted too by touching scenes of mothers and children, mothers softly weeping and children scratching at the grill separating their little hands from daddy.
James swings into view, looming but very thin in orange, so much taller than anybody else. One glimpses flower gardens in the open area behind him. which he's quick to explain have been prettied up recently, giving no hint of what it's like in the stifling cells.
Almost his first words are not greetings for me, the friend unseen for a year, but about the sad little family clusters beside us. For these he feels deeply, personally knowing the fathers on the inside - not only how they miss their wives and kids, but grieve that they can't support them, living as all do in Cambodia's poverty strata
There is only room for one person to interact at a time and so Alex hangs back, giving me a chance to talk to him on this my first visit. It was a bit disconcerting that, as he bent to almost shout through the obscuring metal grill, only the top of his bald head was visible through the upper Perspex and I found myself looking at a dried cut on his scalp.
He assured me it wasn't ill-treatment, that he'd bumped his head on some part of his low cell roof, being so tall. Yes, he is in a cell with 140 people with just a tiny piece of floor area on which to sleep. No mattress, no pillow, and very much in the traffic.
The toilet area is three squat holes, the urinal a slit on the floor which is very hard to hit, he said, leading to a lot of smelly splashing, and then a washing section, all in an area of 3 x 6 m for those 140 men.
How is it bearable? I asked, at which point he turned strangely philosophical and said, "well, you know until the Industrial Revolution, most people probably lived in conditions not dissimilar to mine. It's like a taste of our collective past. Also, we've all read those stories about prisoner of war camps. It's amazing what you get used to."
James is not a grumbler. James is a fighter and it's probably his rather bolshie attitude, as well as his ability to see things comparatively, which keep him going emotionally. But I was rather surprised to be invited to such a thoughtful history lesson in the very short half-hour that we had.
Jesse and Alex had told me that he was in relatively good spirits because he's been having sessions with an evaluating judge, someone who is supposed to decide if there is actually a case against him, and James feels that his relationship with this person is good, that the man understands the absurdity of the charge of spying.
He described with some relish that he had had to explain to this judge what the meaning of certain words in his emails. What did, "heard it on the grapevine" mean? the Judge asked. What did, "a situation he would cover," mean? James seems to have enjoyed explaining the innocence of all this. He feels he will get out soon. His team is not so sure.
In any case, I'm going into some detail because when I asked, James said he would love to have more visitors and so I'm trying to give you a picture which shows that a visit, multiple visits most probably during one's stay, are very do-able and worthwhile
The time, about a half hour, was very quickly up. A bell was rung and although we kept talking after that, soon all the women and children were gone and the guard was politely sweeping us out as well. There was no aggression in the atmosphere. James told us that he had a good relationship with virtually everybody inside, inmates and guards. and that's very important to him. He is very aware that his height means that he looms over the average Cambodian, that he's intimidating.
This was starkly evident as he stood up abruptly at the end of the session and swept out of view like a school teacher in a throng of students
Alex grabbed the last few minutes to tell him important news in terms of their ongoing support, that they were going to see the Australian Ambassador in a few days.
Going back in the Tuk Tuk, we always used the same driver, she shared with me something of how their lives had been taken over, how in fact they are prisoners of his imprisonment, (my phrase not hers) being in Phnom Penh for the duration of his incarceration.
In time terms alone it's a tremendous commitment with a half-hour visit taking virtually all the morning or afternoon. The visits are essential because not only do they keep him posted on what's happening, but they bring in food on which he depends. Medicine and apparently books too now have to come in through the Embassy.
Alex had given me a list of medicines to bring. One was a prescription medicine which meant visiting my doctor who cleverly suggested adding scabies treatment to the shopping list. Scabies has now appeared since my visit and the relevant medicine will be passed on, Alex assures me. But how one person can beat scabies when it's a group infection thing and he is in that cell with 140 people, I don't understand.
Jesse and Alex have done a tremendous amount behind-the-scenes and while it's infuriating and frustrating for friends in Australia that he's still in prison, it's even more frustrating for the team, and people must realise that all that's being done, can't be told. Until you go there, you really can't appreciate the extent of their involvement.
The second visit on the Thursday was actually two. Ellen and I got up very early for the morning session and then stayed in the area till the afternoon visiting time. I was pleased with the fact that I was able to navigate the various steps to admission unaided, speaking no Khmer, having rehearsed with Alex.
They have it all written down and update instructions as necessary. Since Curtis Levy's visit six months ago, the bribes one pays, for instance, have dropped significantly. Now, it's only a dollar here and there, dropped into a can or just handed over, and there's little confusion as to when and where.
What to do in the four hours between visiting times that Thursday? It was actually James who suggested that we use the middle of the day to visit the killing fields which we had been avoiding, sensing the place would be so grim. but which is not far off.
It was quite strange on the second visit to have James playing the role of tour guide, assuring us that the fields were strangely enriching. "When you go”, he said in his guide mode, "make sure you pick up the audio companion, sit by the lake and listen to the beautiful piece of music composed especially in memory of the dark history."
In the afternoon, James was very glad to hear both that we had followed his instructions and about all the support in Australia, 350 shares of his letter on FB.
He knew about Roxanne's fantastic petition of course, but didn't seem to know that a sizeable amount of money had been pledged. Alex assured me he had been told about this but he forgets things, she said. What did he want to happen now? "Keep the pressure up" he said.
What that means exactly, reveals some difference of opinion between himself and the team on the spot. What should we do? I think any major initiatives should pass by Jesse and Alexandra Lou before being put into action. A new lawyer may be coming on the scene. He has to be got up to speed if accepted by James.
Seems to me a flood of presentations to Julie Bishop's office, phone calls emails, following up on the letter she has written to the Cambodian government, is a good thing to do.
A visit is relatively expensive. The return airfare was a bit under $1000 and the week, us being very economical, cost another $500.We used the same Tuk Tuk driver who knows the whole situation, each day (whose email I can supply) We paid him about $25 a day, seeing lots of other things in our spare time. He also picked us up at the airport
Our air-conditioned room I include in that $500 calculation, costing us $35 which is on the low side. This was at the Paragon Central Hotel, on 144 street, virtually on the river. there is a much nicer hotel called The Teahouse recommended by Curtis Levy with a garden setting and a pool. But it was not available this being high season and anyway, it was almost $70 a night
The Visa which you get on entry, cost $US30 and is best purchased with crisp new small denomination US notes, which are preferred for all transactions in Cambodia. Cleverly, I had picked up $500 US in such currency, mostly fives and tens, before leaving and that did me for the week, being abstemious
So one has to weigh all that against putting a sizeable contribution into the fund.