Australian filmmaker returns home after Cambodia pardon

Ricketson speaks to the media upon arriving at Sydney International airport

An Australian filmmaker freed from jail after receiving a royal pardon in Cambodia returned home Sunday as his family spoke of being "overwhelmed with happiness" at his release.

James Ricketson was sentenced to six years' imprisonment last month after being convicted of espionage. He had been in detention since June last year after he flew a drone over an opposition rally.

He was given a royal pardon on Friday after strongman premier Hun Sen requested it.

The 69-year-old landed in Sydney late Sunday after being deported on Saturday.

"The Ricketson family are overwhelmed with happiness to have James home safely in Australia," they said in a statement reported by commercial broadcaster Channel Nine.

"James still deeply loves Cambodia and its people and remains committed to helping however he can."

The family thanked supporters for campaigning for his release, as well as King Norodom Sihamoni for "bringing this nightmare to an end".

They added that the 16-month imprisonment took a huge physical and emotional toll on Ricketson's health.

Ricketson's pardon came a few days before Hun Sen -- who has held power for more than 33 years -- was scheduled to travel to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

It also followed the freeing of activists and opposition lawmakers in the weeks after July's national election, which critics said was neither free nor fair.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne thanked her Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhonn and said the pardon ended a "distressing time" for Ricketson and his family.

Ricketson was detained after footage emerged of him using a drone to film a rally of the now-defunct opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

His six-day trial -- which rights groups slammed as a farce -- showed him to be defiant and combative. It featured a surprise appearance by Hollywood director Peter Weir, who served as a character witness for his friend.

The prosecution accused Ricketson of working as a filmmaker in Cambodia as a front for spying activities, but the verdict failed to name which country he was allegedly spying for.

The CNRP, the sole legitimate opposition force to Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, was dissolved in the lead-up to the controversial election -- clearing the path for his party to take all 125 parliament seats.