Bangkok: While accused Australian spy James Ricketson languishes unwell in one of Cambodia's harshest jails the Turnbull government insists it cannot intervene in his case.
The Department of Foreign Affairs says its consular staff cannot provide legal advice or intervene in legal cases to get Australians out of prison overseas "just as foreign embassy officials cannot do so in Australia."
The policy which the department says applies to all Australians who get into trouble overseas means that Canberra cannot tell Cambodian authorities that 68 year-old Ricketson is not an Australian spy, if that is the case.
The department reiterated its policy to Fairfax Media as some of the Sydney filmmaker's family members and supporters circulate an on-line petition demanding that Australia intervene to avoid what they say is a false prosecution.
"That the Cambodian government could accuse James Ricketson of being a spy for the Australian government with no response or denial from our government is absolutely shameful," the petition says.
"The minister for foreign affairs has done nothing with regard to negotiating his release and in doing so defending Australia's position," it said.
Ricketson was taken into police custody from Cambodia's waterfront in June last year after visiting a rubbish dump where he was providing aid to scavengers.
Earlier that day he was photographed flying a drone over a rally by supporters of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which has been at the centre of a crackdown on political freedoms in the country ruled by strongman Hun Sen for more than three decades.
Ricketson has been accused of "receiving or collecting information, processes, objects, documents, computerised data or files with a view to supplying them to a foreign state or its agents, which are liable to prejudice the national defence."
The charge does not name the "foreign state" and Cambodian officials have refused to reveal details of the allegations against him.
But Fresh News, a pro-government on-line news site, has accused Ricketson of being an "important spy" and linked him to a purported plot to overthrew Hun Sen involving opposition leaders, staff of non-government organisations, US embassy officials and journalists.
Hun Sen, one of the world's most notorious autocrats, has used the supposed plot to justify a sweeping crackdown to silence critics ahead of scheduled elections later this year.
The Cambodian National Rescue Party has been disbanded and its leaders are either in jail, have fled the country or are in hiding.
From Prey Sar, a jail on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where he shares a cell with 27 prisoners, Ricketson has pleaded to be releasing, saying "I am still confused as to what I have done other than flying a drone without a permit to deserve such punishment."
Strict Australian laws prohibit the identification of any Australian secret intelligence officer.
But people who know Ricketson say any suggestion he is was spying for Australia is ludicrous.
"That's absurd. James is no spy," Elizabeth Farrelly, a long-time friend, wrote in Fairfax Media on December 23.
Until now Ricketson's supporters have largely kept quiet about his incarceration, hoping lawyers and Australian officials could secure his release from a legal system where the judges mostly deliver verdicts favouring the government.
For years Ricketson, an award-winning filmmaker who studied at the Australian Film and Television School, was a familiar face at political rallies in Phnom Penh where he has been making a documentary on a girl he took off the streets who he found begging near a market.
He became known as an uncompromising figure, once wrestling with an official on the ground after an argument.
Ricketson campaigned for the release from Prey Sar of a British man convicted of child sex abuse, who he claims is innocent.
In letters and blogs he campaigned against Cambodian orphanages.
Ricketson is scheduled to appear in a Cambodian court on January 10 to hear the outcome of an appeal against the refusal of authorities to grant him bail.
Friends say they fear Ricketson, who is suffering un-medicated high blood and other ailments, will die in jail before the completion of his trial, which could take years.