Australia defends raids on E. Timor lawyer and whistleblower

Reuters

By Jane Wardell

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Attorney-General George Brandis said on Wednesday raids by Australia's domestic spy agency on the Canberra offices of a lawyer representing East Timor over Australian bugging claims were justified on grounds of national security.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had ordered the search warrants executed on Tuesday on the offices of lawyer Bernard Collaery and an unnamed former spy turned whistleblower, Brandis said in a statement.

The raids have angered East Timor on the eve of the start of arbitration in The Hague over allegations that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) bugged East Timorese government offices in Dili during the 2004 negotiations over the maritime boundary between Australia and East Timor and the revenue split from the Greater Sunrise gas fields.

East Timor alleges that ASIS, whose spies gather foreign intelligence, breached international law and Timorese sovereignty.

Australia's Woodside Petroleum is contracted to develop the Sunrise LNG plant but is stuck in the middle of the dispute. While Woodside prefers a floating LNG plant, East Timor is pushing for an onshore plant that will provide jobs for locals, leaving the project at a stalemate.

Collaery said Tuesday's raid included the cancelation of the passport of his star witness - the unnamed former spy - making it impossible for the witness to give evidence at The Hague.

Brandis said suggestions by Collaery that the search warrants were issued to impede or subvert the arbitration were "rather wild and injudicious."

"Those claims are wrong," he said in the statement. "The search warrants were issued, on the advice and at the request of ASIO, to protect Australia's national security."

East Timorese Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao said the raids were "counterproductive and uncooperative," and called on Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to explain the government's actions and "ensure the safety of our witness for a prompt, just and fair resolution of this important matter."

"Raiding the premises of a legal representative of Timor-Leste and taking such aggressive action against a key witness is unconscionable and unacceptable conduct," Xanana Gusmao said in a statement. "It is behavior that is not worthy of a close friend and neighbor or of a great nation like Australia."

Brandis said the ASIO would analyze the material seized in coming days, and he was not personally aware of details.

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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