The bipartisan attempt to jail a lawyer and his client for exposing a national disgrace

The Howard government’s invasion of Timor Leste (East Timor) in 1999 was justified by an incredible outpouring of hypocritical cant about ending the Indonesian genocide of the Timorese people. As though John Howard ever cared for the wellbeing of the Timorese.

There was nothing humanitarian about this display of Australian military might. The invasion of East Timor was all about preserving Australian power and strategic influence in the region and gaining control over the enormous and profitable oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea.

The disgraceful prosecution just launched by the Turnbull government against Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery and a former ASIS (Australian Security Intelligence Service) officer, “Witness K”, underlines the extreme lengths the Australian state is prepared to go to defend its imperialist interests and the profits of companies such as Woodside Petroleum.

In 2004, “Witness K” was part of a team of ASIS operatives who bugged the cabinet room of the East Timorese government. The aim of this outrageous spying operation was to aid the Australian government to rip off the East Timorese in the intense negotiations about the division of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

“Witness K” made his objections known to his superiors about this sordid operation and, unsurprisingly, was sacked. He engaged Bernard Collaery, the former ACT attorney general, who was acting for the East Timorese government in the Timor Sea Treaty case against Australia, as his lawyer.

Since then, both Collaery and K have been subject to ongoing harassment, intimidation and surveillance by the Australian security forces. 

Collaery has been charged with illegally communicating information via interviews or conversations with several ABC journalists and producers. Collaery spoke to the media only after raids on Witness K’s home and Collaery’s office, in which documents were seized while he was out of the country.

Witness K is not a whistleblower and did not go public with the information about the illegal bugging of the East Timorese cabinet office. He simply spoke to his lawyer. Witness K has been charged with “conspiring” with Collaery to communicate information – an appalling assault on lawyer-client privilege.

The prosecution is being carried out by the Commonwealth director of Public Prosecutions’ Organised Crime and Counter Terrorism unit. Collaery and Witness K are being made an example and treated as though they were Mafia drug lords or terrorist bombers because they had the effrontery and decency to stand up to an outrageous government-ordered spying operation to rip off the poorest people in our region.

To cover up this concerted attack on civil liberties, the government is engaging in further police state measures. The prosecution is applying to have the trial conducted in private to avoid media scrutiny. The government has even sought an order to prevent Collaery discussing his defence or aspects of it without approval.

However, it is not just the Turnbull government that is responsible for these police state measures. The Labor opposition has not made a peep of criticism of the victimisation of Collaery and Witness K, nor of the ASIS spying operation.

When the details of the spying operation originally leaked out in 2012, the Labor government of Julia Gillard rejected East Timor’s complaint about this outrageous attack. Both Labor and the Liberals are on a unity ticket when it comes to ripping off the East Timorese and defending Australia’s imperialist interests.