The Guardian • Issue #2015

ACT Supreme Court ends prosecution of Bernard Collaery

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2015

Senator Nick Xenophon with Bernard Collaery and Nicholas Cowdery QC in 2015 calling for a royal commission into the Australia-East Timor spying scandal. Photo: Jack bulldog – (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The prosecution of Bernard Collaery has been officially ended after the new federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus ordered the charges levelled at Collaery to be dropped. Collaery, human rights lawyer, former Attorney-General of the ACT and legal counsel to the government of Timor-Leste, has been embroiled in a four year-long legal battle with the Australian government.

Government prosecution of Collaery began in 2018, accusing him of conspiring with an ex-client and former member of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, known only as “Witness K,” to reveal evidence of illegal spying operations by the Australian government in Timor-Leste before The Hague. The spying operations ran by the Australian government in Timor-Leste primarily involved the bugging of the cabinet offices of the Timor-Leste government during the negotiations for a petroleum and gas treaty in 2004, aimed at giving the Australian government the advantage in securing valuable oil and gas reserves in the area surrounding Timor-Leste. Collaery worked with Witness K as the former ASIS agent blew the whistle on the government’s and agency’s practices in Timor-Leste in 2013, both being pursued, harassed and indicted by ASIO to stop them delivering evidence at The Hague.

Government action against Collaery and Witness K remained minimal from 2014 until 2018 when both had criminal charges filed against them by the outgoing Turnbull government and incoming Morrison government, joining military whistle-blower David McBride with being charged for the theft of Commonwealth property. The case levelled against Collaery and Witness K cost millions of dollars (reported by the Attorney-General as being more than $2 million in 2020), as well as having an enormous mental and emotional cost for both men, the almost eight years of government surveillance and harassment damaging Collaery’s legal practice and greatly affecting the mental health of Witness K. Although charges against Collaery have now been dropped (the government never taking their case to court), Witness K remains convicted after accepting a guilty plea deal that suspended his sentence to three months. The decision to drop the case against Collaery while whistle-blowers like Julian Assange and David McBride still face legal persecution reflects the likelihood that the action was made to further political ends.

As the Albanese government makes attempts to strengthen its relationship with Asia-Pacific partners in an attempt to counter perceived Chinese influence in Australia’s imperial sphere of influence. The decision to drop the Collaery case works to shore up the relationship between the Australian government and Timor-Leste, the government’s persecution of Collaery and Witness K a major sticking point in international relations between the two states.

The dropping of charges against Collaery presents an opportunity to push for the end of government persecution of whistle-blowers, giving momentum to the push to reverse Witness K’s conviction and end the persecution of other whistle-blowers like David McBride and Julian Assange. It is inexcusable to consider the reporting of criminal activity perpetrated by the government to be a crime itself, the persecution of whistle-blowers must end.

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