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 during multibillion-dollar oil and gas negotiations in 2004.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus maintained the government's longstanding 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.
East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta said on Friday that by dropping the charge, Australia had ended a bitter rift between the countries.
“What happened in the past on the part of Australia, with the bugging of our offices, the spy (sic) on our government, during negotiations on ... oil revenues, maritime boundary, the talks, all of that, we leave behind,” Ramos-Horta told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
There was now a “far better atmosphere of mutual trust” between the countries, Ramos-Horta said.
“We are determined to move forward, to expand our relationship with Australia, a very important neighbor and friend of Timor-Leste,” Ramos-Horta said, using the Portuguese name for East Timor.
Geoffrey Watson, a lawyer and director of the Sydney-based Center for Public Integrity, an anti-corruption think tank, described the bugging allegation as one of the most disgraceful moments in Australian international affairs since World War II.
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 in May elections.
The previous conservative government 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 was 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, became 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 pleaded not guilty and was scheduled to go on trial in October.
Both Collaery and K faced possible 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 of the validity of the 2006 energy treaty.
East Timor argued the treaty was invalid because Australia failed to negotiate in good faith by engaging in espionage.
K and Collaery had prepared two affidavits for the East Timorese government 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, 77, thanked his lawyers, who represented him for free, and the Australian public who had expressed their support for him.
“I am very pleased that the new attorney-general has looked at this prosecution and all it has involved and taken steps to bring the case to an end. This is a good decision for the administration of justice in Australia,” he said in a statement.
"This decision will allow me to move forward with my life and legal practice,” he said.