Australia drops charge against lawyer over spying claim

·2 min read

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s new government on Thursday dropped the 4-year-old prosecution of a lawyer over his alleged attempt to help East Timor prove that Australia had spied on the then-fledgling nation’s government in 2004 during multibillion-dollar oil and gas negotiations.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus maintained the longstanding government stance of refusing to confirm or deny whether the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, a spy agency that operates out of Australian embassies, bugged government offices in the East Timorese capital Dili.

“Having had regard to our national security, our national interest and the administration of justice, today I have determined that this prosecution should end,” Dreyfus said.

“My decision was informed by our government’s commitment to Australia’s national security and our commitment to our relations with our neighbors. This is an exceptional case,” Dreyfus added.

East Timor had lobbied for the charge to be dropped.

Australia's center-left Labor Party government had been reviewing Bernard Collaery’s case since it came to power for the first time in nine years at May elections.

The previous conservative government had approved in 2018 the prosecution of Collaery and his client, a former spy publicly known as Witness K, on charges that they had conspired to reveal secret information to East Timor.

A conservative coalition had also been in power in 2004 when the bugging is said to have occurred to give Australia an advantage in negotiations over a treaty to divide revenue from energy resources in the Timor Sea between the two nations.

East Timor, an impoverished nation of 1.5 million people on half of Timor Island north of Australia, had become independent of Indonesia in 2002.

Witness K, the former spy, pleaded guilty and was released from court in 2021 with a three-month suspended sentence.

Collaery had pleaded not guilty and was scheduled to stand trial in October.

Both Collaery and K had faced potential penalties of up to two years in prison. The penalty for the same offense has since been increased to 10 years.

The government canceled K’s passport before he was to testify at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2014 in support of East Timor’s challenge to the validity of the 2006 energy treaty.

The East Timorese argued the treaty was invalid because Australia failed to negotiate in good faith by engaging in espionage.

K and Collaery had prepared for the East Timorese government two affidavits that identified K as a former ASIS member and details of ASIS functions, a court heard.

Australia and East Timor agreed on a new maritime border treaty in 2018.

Collaery did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. When he was charged in 2018, Collaery blamed a political vendetta.

“The government will simply pursue this vindictive prosecution to ruin my reputation and career,” Collaery said.

Rod Mcguirk, The Associated Press

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