October trial date set for Bernard Collaery nearly four years after charges laid

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Bernard Collaery has been told he will face trial in October, four years after he was charged, despite his lawyers seeking more time to pursue an appeal that could be key to his defence.

Collaery and his former client Witness K were charged in mid-2018 with unlawfully disclosing information about an Australian Secret Intelligence Service mission to bug the government offices of Timor-Leste, an impoverished ally, during negotiations over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

Related: Government successfully blocks Bernard Collaery from obtaining documents on legality of spy mission

Since then the case has languished in the courts of the Australian Capital Territory, beset by repeated delays and interventions from the commonwealth attorney general, who has imposed secrecy on the proceedings using the National Security Information Act.

The latest twist in the case came this month when Collaery was blocked from accessing documents about the legality of the bugging operation in Timor-Leste, after a court ruled they were irrelevant to the case against him. Collaery has previously indicated he would argue as part of his defence that the espionage mission was not lawful.

His lawyers are planning to appeal against the decision blocking access to the documents, a process that could, if pursued right through the appellate courts, take several months.

On Thursday the ACT supreme court set down his trial date for 24 October, with an estimated duration of four to five weeks. It did so despite opposition from Collaery’s barrister, Philip Boulton SC.

The registrar, Jayne Reece, told Boulton she was bound by the orders of Justice David Mossop, who ruled that a trial date must be set.

Outside the court, the political ground has shifted considerably since Saturday’s election.

Collaery was initially charged with the consent of the former attorney general Christian Porter, who agreed it was in the public interest for the prosecution to occur.

Related: Mark Dreyfus flags Bernard Collaery case as priority if appointed attorney general

But Labor has made serious criticisms of the commonwealth’s handling of the case. Mark Dreyfus, who is tipped to become attorney general, told Guardian Australia this week he would be seeking an urgent briefing.

“If I am fortunate enough to be appointed attorney general in the Albanese Labor government, I would seek an early briefing from my department on a number of matters relating to the prosecution of Mr Collaery,” he said.

Dreyfus has previously said he cannot see how the case is in the public interest.

“I am yet to hear a cogent explanation of how the public interest is served by ongoing attempts to prosecute a man now well over 70 in relation to an alleged disclosure of events alleged to have occurred almost 20 years ago,” he said this month.

Labor has so far avoided criticising the substance of the case itself or committed to withdrawing consent.

Though the case has been before the courts since 2018, the prospect of prosecution has hung over Collaery for far longer. His offices were raided by police and intelligence officers in 2013 as he prepared to help Timor-Leste mount a case in The Hague that alleged that the Timor Sea treaty with Australia was void due to the spying mission.

Five years later – just after the government signed a new treaty with Timor-Leste – charges were brought against Collaery and Witness K.

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