The family of film-maker James Ricketson have celebrated “a very happy day” after his return to Australia on Sunday night, but admit to feeling “hesitant” about the 69-year-old returning to Cambodia any time soon.
Ricketson, an Australian documentary film-maker, had spent 15 months inside a Cambodian jail but returned to Australia on Sunday night after he was granted clemency from the king, Norodom Sihamoni.
On Monday his family spoke to the media in Sydney, saying Ricketson was “grateful to have his freedom”. He had been expected to front the media himself, but was “still recuperating”.
He walked on the beach in Sydney at dawn, and was buying a sim card for his phone.
“He’s so happy. So happy to be back,” his nephew Bim Ricketson said.
“[Last night] his mind was still very much in the 24 hours of action before he left [but] when I saw him this morning he had sort of had that realisation of ‘Oh wow, there’s the ocean, and familiar faces from my neighbourhood’.
“I guess he sort of started to see the other side of it. So I guess over the coming days he’ll probably reorient himself back to being here in Australia.”
Ricketson spoke briefly to media at Sydney airport on Sunday night and told the media there had been “room for improvement” in the way the Australian government handled his case but that he planned on returning to Cambodia, where he has adopted family, “as soon as I can”.
But on Monday his family said they still did not have the full details of how his sudden and unexpected release had been secured, and said they wanted to focus on the positives.
“I don’t know many of the details. I know James does and he’ll tell the whole thing before too long,” Bim Ricketon said.
“Right now we’re enjoying the moment and celebrating his return,” his daughter Roxanne Holmes added.
“There have been some really good examples of our politicians doing the right thing in these circumstances so I think we need to celebrate all the positives rather than focus on the negatives.
“I’m sure he will tell his own story in his words when he’s well enough to do so.”
His brother Peter Ricketson admitted he would feel “hesitant” about the 69-year-old returning to Cambodia any time soon.
“I would feel in two minds about going him back to Cambodia,” he said. “One would be, that is where he loves to help people, he’s a humanitarian at heart, he’s got adopted family there and he wants to continue his good work there.
“That’s the good side.
“I would be hesitant about him going back immediately. I think the political situation needs to settle down. Maybe in the near future he will be able to return [but] my understanding is he would probably need permission to return [and] I think the main thing for him now is to chill out, basically, and have some time to reflect.”
Ricketson had been in prison since last June, after footage emerged of him using a drone to film a rally of the now-defunct opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The CNRP was Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s party’s (CPP) main political opposition until it was dissolved last November.
In August he was sentenced to six years in prison for espionage in a trial that was widely criticised by human rights activists and politicians in Australia.
Since his arrest Ricketson had been held in Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar prison, where he has been kept under tight security.
Cambodian friends had told local media that he was being kept in an overcrowded cell and was in need of medical attention for high blood pressure, lice, scabies and inflammation of the legs.
But on Monday his family said Ricketson had made the best of the situation.
“He’s a very adaptable person, very resilient, very positive person,” Bim Ricketson said.
“Although it sounds terrible to us to sleep on the floor and be in a cell with a lot of people it wasn’t too bad for him. It was life. He made good friends with the people in his cell despite not necessarily speaking the same language.”
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said the pardon meant the end of a distressing time for the film-maker and his family.
“I thank my counterpart, the Cambodian foreign minister, Prak Sokhonn, for his government’s positive consideration of Mr Ricketson’s petition,” Payne said.