The federal Attorney General’s case against a defendant dubbed “Witness K” began in the ACT Magistrates Court on September 12. Media reports say Witness K is a serving Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer. Their lawyer Bernard Collaery is a former ACT Chief Minister.
The prosecution is alleging that Witness K breached laws against revealing the operations of Australia’s spy agencies. It says they did this by blowing the whistle on an operation in 2004 when, it is alleged, the John Howard Coalition government directed ASIS to bug the Timor-Leste (East Timorese) government in Dili during negotiations over the maritime border between Australia and East Timor in the Timor Sea.
At stake were lucrative oil reserves under the sea.
After leaving parliament, Howard’s foreign minister Alexander Downer went to work for Woodside Petroleum, one of Australia's biggest companies. The former head of the foreign affairs department was also signed up.
The revelations about the bugging prompted the East Timorese government to initiate a case in the International Court of Settlements in The Hague, arguing that as the original agreement was tainted it should be renegotiated. It succeeded in having the agreement annulled, opening the way for a renegotiation of the sea border.
Earlier this year, an agreement was signed between Australia and East Timor giving the latter more of the undersea oil reserves.
The Australian government is now taking it out on the whistleblower and their lawyer.
A protest outside the Magistrate's Court organised by GetUp! and the Timor Sea Justice Campaign heard from Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, Greens Senator Nick McKim and Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie.
Wilkie said that using ASIS to spy on commercial-in-confidence joint venture negotiations is illegal and to do that against the poorest country in South-East Asia was “improper”, particularly as the beneficiary was Woodside Petroleum.
It was also improper, Wilkie said, that Downer obtained contract work for Woodside Petroleum after leaving parliament. He said the prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery was “an act of bastardry” and, if they go to jail, the two will become “political prisoners”.
Sharkie said the case was about democracy, and she challenged the Australian Labor Party to state its position. She said if the two defendants were imprisoned it would make it harder for others to blow the whistle on illegal acts undertaken by the government.
She said that Centre Alliance, the Greens and Wilkie were calling on the Australian Federal Police to investigate the 2004 bugging of the East Timorese government offices.
McKim said that there were “several acts of bastardry” starting with the criminal act of bugging the East Timorese government with the aim of depriving it of revenues from the oil reserves foregone in negotiations. He said together with Wilkie and Sharkie, he had referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.
The second act of bastardry, McKim said, was charging Bernard Collaery and Witness K for bringing the bugging to light. He said the federal government should be thanking them “for what they did” — standing up for transparency and the rule of law and exposing criminal behaviour. “They should receive a medal.”
McKim also said the media should have full access to the court case, so that people understand what was done in their name.
The defence lawyer argued for the directions hearing to remain open, and this was granted. The court case has, however, been adjourned until October 29.