Attorney-General Christian Porter has approved the criminal prosecution of a former Australian spy and his lawyer for their role revealing that the Australian Government had bugged the East Timorese cabinet room during sensitive negotiations about oil and gas revenue.
Hugh de Kretser, the Executive Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said it was extremely alarming that someone would be prosecuted for exposing government wrongdoing.
"When someone exposes government wrongdoing they should be thanked, not prosecuted," said Mr de Kretser.
The former high ranking intelligence officer, known only as Witness K, did not take details of the controversial spying episode to the media, but instead lodged a protected complaint with the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security who subsequently directed him to lawyer Bernard Collaery for legal advice. In 2013, just before the matter was to be raised in arbitration proceedings at The Hague, the Australian Government raided Mr Collaery’s office and seized Witness K’s passport which prevented him from giving evidence in the arbitration. The International Court of Justice subsequently ordered the Australian Government to stop interfering with East Timor’s communications.
"This is a frightening move from the Turnbull Government because it sends a message to all public servants that if they dare to speak up about corruption or wrongdoing, the government will come down on them like a tonne of bricks. For a healthy democracy, we want people speaking up when they see something wrong," said Mr de Kretser.
Witness K and Mr Collaery have been charged with breaching section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act. Charges under that section can only be laid by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions on the instruction or with the consent of the Attorney-General. The charges carry a potential two year jail term.
The news that Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, had been charged, was revealed when independent MP Andrew Wilkie used Parliamentary privilege to detail the situation.
"That's what happens in a pre-police state, where instead of a royal commission they lock up people who more likely deserve the Order of Australia," said Mr Wilkie.
Mr de Kretser urged the media to respond to any attempts by the Government to hold the case in secret and push for the case to be heard in open public court.
"In the current climate, with Parliament having only yesterday passed sweeping new laws criminalising the disclosure of information, transparency around this worrying case is vital," said Mr de Kretser.
For interviews or further information please call:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519