Labor should oppose prosecution against Witness K, Steve Bracks says | World news
The former Australian Secret Intelligence Service operative and his lawyer Bernard Collaery face charges for conspiracy to breach section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act after revealing that Australia had bugged Timor-Leste’s cabinet rooms during lucrative oil and gas negotiations in 2004.
Bracks, Victoria’s second-longest serving Labor premier and an occasional adviser to Timor-Leste, called on the attorney general, Christian Porter, to drop the charges, which the former premier described as “shocking”.
He added that Labor should scrap the prosecution if it wins the next election. The opposition has been silent on the issue since the independent MP Andrew Wilkie used parliamentary privilege earlier this month to reveal the pair were being prosecuted.
Asked if the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, and the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, should comment on the issue, he said: “They may give a public comment soon, I hope they do and I would encourage them to do so.”
An initial hearing on the case was scheduled at the ACT magistrates court on Tuesday but has been postponed until 12 September. Porter has said the decision to charge the pair was made by the commonwealth director of public prosecutions. The prosecution requires his consent.
The Timor-Leste government has said the charges are a matter for the Australian legal system, but the country’s former president, José Ramos-Horta, told ABC Radio on Wednesday it was “beyond comprehension Australia is prosecuting Witness K and solicitor Bernard Collaery”.
Bracks joined Timor Sea Justice Campaign activists, Balibo Five widow Shirley Shackleton, Victorian Trades Hall officials and the former Victorian Labor deputy premier John Thwaites at the protest against the prosecutions in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Speaking to the rally, Bracks suggested the government was seeking a suppression order in the case to avoid political embarrassment, including that the foreign affairs minister at the time, Alexander Downer, may be called to give evidence.
“Why would the Australian government go to the extent of choosing to proceed with a prosecution against Witness K and Bernard Collaery?” he said.
“What have they got to hide? What is the motivation ... You have to ask the question, why at the magistrates court in the hearing in Canberra in September, would the Australian government seek a suppression order? Why? They don’t want this strategy made public.”
Thwaites, who worked on infrastructure projects in Timor-Leste after he left politics, told the rally he was “sick in the stomach” when he heard about the charges.
“I believe Australia’s international reputation is being harmed by this,” he told Guardian Australia.
“We’re not going to be able to expect other countries to do the right thing and follow international law if we behave like this, if we breached the law in our actions in other countries and then cover that up, and then charge people who tell the truth.”
Thwaites said political pressure, including from Labor, would be “worthwhile”, but added that “the bottom line is that the government is responsible and the attorney general is responsible”.
Collaery, who was also a legal advisor to Timor-Leste, has said he and Witness K raised their concerns about the bugging operation through the proper channels.
The pair are charged with communicating information about the operation to ABC journalists and a producer.
Clara Chung, a member of Melbourne’s Timorese community, told the rally Timor-Leste had eventually gained a “fairer deal” because of Collaery and Witness K.
“We will never forget their favours,” she said.
Timorese activists were also expected to converge on the Australian embassy in Dili on Wednesday.