East Timor to ask international court to order Australia to return seized documents

CANBERRA, Australia – East Timor said it will ask an international court in the Netherlands on Monday to order Australia to return documents seized by the Australian secret service relating to a legal dispute over oil and gas revenue-sharing between the countries.

East Timorese Minister of State Agio Pereira said in a statement that his government will ask the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague for an interim order requiring Australia to hand over the documents to the court. That order would stand pending a final decision on East Timor’s demand for their return.

Australian Security Intelligence Organization agents last month raided the homes in the Australian capital Canberra of a lawyer and a former spy who intended to testify before the same court that Australia allegedly bugged the East Timorese Cabinet ahead of sensitive oil and gas revenue-sharing negotiations.

Pereira said the agents also seized the spy’s passport, preventing him from travelling to The Hague to testify. The spy cannot be identified for legal reasons.

Pereira said the documents related to East Timor’s challenge to the validity of a bilateral treaty struck with Australia in 2006 over sharing seabed oil and gas reserves between the countries worth billions of dollars.

East Timor is arguing that the agreement is invalid because Australia had illegally bugged government offices and listened to confidential discussions relating to the negotiations.

“Timor-Leste contends that the … treaty is invalid and ineffective because Australia secretly and unlawfully spied on Timor-Leste, bugging its government offices and listening in to highly confidential discussions during the course of the negotiations on the treaty,” Pereira said, referring to East Timor by its Portuguese name.

Australian Attorney General George Brandis, who authorized the ASIO raids, said in a statement on Monday “it would be inappropriate to comment on the substance of the dispute” because it was before the court.

He had previously revealed that he had told ASIO that none of the seized information was to be shared with lawyers representing Australia in The Hague.

Australia negotiated the treaty after East Timor, an impoverished half-island nation, broke away from Indonesia in a 1999 United Nations’ sanctioned independence ballot. Indonesia had previously struck a similar agreement to share the seabed.