Hollywood director Weir testifies in Cambodia 'spying' trial

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Peter Weir is known for directly critically acclaimed films like 'Dead Poets Society' and 'The Truman Show'

Hollywood director Peter Weir made a surprise appearance at a court in the Cambodian capital on Thursday, testifying in the trial of a filmmaker accused of espionage, the latest twist in a case decried by rights groups as "bogus".

James Ricketson was arrested in June last year for flying a drone over a rally held by the country's main opposition party, and has languished in prison since.

Facing charges of espionage and after being repeatedly denied bail, the embattled 69-year-old Australian got a high-profile character witness on the first day of his trial.

Weir -- known for critically acclaimed films like "The Truman Show" and "Dead Poets Society" -- emerged from a luxury sedan wearing a Panama hat, and strode into Phnom Penh Municipal Court unrecognised by media outside.

The Oscar-nominated director told the judge he has known Ricketson since 1973 when he was a student at a film school where Weir was an advisor, and that the case against him was an "unfortunate misunderstanding".

"James is totally a non-violent man but he is always filming with his camera," Weir said. "We are strange people but we are pretty harmless."

The judge denied Ricketson's latest bail request and adjourned the hearing until August 20.

A few months after his arrest, Cambodia's main opposition was dissolved in a court ruling, capping a crackdown on dissent in the lead-up to last month's election -- which was swept by strongman Hun Sen's ruling party.

Authorities also turned up the heat on media working in the country before the vote, targeting news outlets with crippling tax bills that forced them to shut down.

US-backed Radio Free Asia closed down its Cambodia operations and two of its reporters were later arrested and hit with the same charge as Ricketson.

As he arrived at court Thursday, the filmmaker told reporters that he hoped the case would be thrown out.

"There's no witnesses, there's no victim, there's no crime," he said from a prison van. "I'm very confident because there's no evidence."

Ricketson has faced legal trouble before in Cambodia, where he has lived for years.

In 2014, he was handed a two-year suspended 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.

If convicted of the espionage charge, he could face up to 10 years in prison.