George Brandis pleased with court ruling in East Timor spying case

Attorney-General George Brandis’ has declared that the federal government  pleased with an International Court of Justice order that Australian intelligence agencies stop spying on East Timor and seal documents seized in an ASIO raid last year, sparking incredulity from his political opponents.

The orders, which are binding, came as the two nations are embroiled in a heated dispute over $40 billion of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, amid allegations of espionage and dirty dealing by Australia.

The proceedings before the ICJ was prompted by East Timor’s outrage that the office of its Canberra-based lawyer Bernard Collaery was raided by ASIO in December, just before international arbitration was to take place between the two countries over the disputed Timor Sea treaty.

East Timor wanted the documents sealed and handed back to them or the ICJ, and for the court to require Australia to cease spying on it and its lawyers.

In a provisional ruling on Tuesday morning, the ICJ concurred with the latter request and extended it further by saying that the ban on spying extended beyond the arbitration to include any future discussions of the Timor Sea sea boundary that is at the heart of the conflict over its oil and gas reserves.

The court also did not accept Senator Brandis’ undertakings that the legally privileged documents seized in the raid could be safeguarded by being kept from Australian officials involved in the dispute with Timor and only accessed by those charged with ensuring ‘‘national security’.

The ICJ ordered that the material seized in the raid had to be sealed from all Australian officials and other parties.

However, the ICJ did not agree to East Timor’s demand that the material should be returned to them, trusting Australia to honour the order.

‘‘The Australian Government is pleased with the decision of the International Court of Justice,’’ Senator Brandis said.

‘‘These orders will, of course, be complied with. This is a good outcome for Australia.’’

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus took a different view, saying the ICJ’s orders damaged Australia’s international reputation and were the ‘‘direct result of Senator Brandis’ inept handling of the matter’’.

‘‘It appears that in authorising search and seizure warrants on the offices of East Timor’s lawyer, just days before an arbitration with Australia was to commence, Senator Brandis did not give the slightest thought to the consequences of those raids.’’

Greens security spokesman Scott Ludlam said the statement by Senator Brandis was ‘‘absolutely extraordinary’’.

‘‘He should reconsider his very smug dismissal of this very serious legal censure.’’

Senator Brandis approved the raids on Mr Collaery and a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service agent. The former intelligence officer has alleged that he led an operation in 2004 where Australia bugged East Timor’s government offices in the middle of negotiations over a treaty over the Timor reserves, which are closer to East Timor than Australia.

He is the star witness for the arbitration in the Hague and had his passport confiscated. Senator Brandis, however, insisted the raid was due to national security concerns rather than the arbitration, citing the potential unauthorised disclosure of classified information.

International law expert Ben Saul from the University of Sydney said: ‘‘Timor got more than Australia, but the court did try to steer a middle course.’’

East Timor, meanwhile, welcomed the decision. Its agent at the proceedings, Joaquim da Fonseca, told reporters he was “very satisfied with the result”.

The court “appreciated the seriousness of the harm that could be caused by the seizure and the detention of the documents which belong to Timor-Leste”.

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