Australia backs down in Timor Leste row

DILI: Australia has agreed to return to Timor Leste sensitive documents related to a controversial oil and gas treaty between the two countries which were seized by Canberra, following a battle at the UN’s top court, Dili said.

Timor Leste dragged Canberra to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague in early 2014 seeking the return of the documents that were taken by Australia’s intelligence services in a raid on an Timor Leste lawyer’s office in the Australian capital.

The documents relate to a multi-billion-dollar agreement signed in 2006 between Canberra and Dili, several years after Timor Leste won independence following years of brutal Indonesian occupation.

The tiny, half-island nation, which has a sluggish economy heavily dependent on oil and gas, wants the treaty torn up, as it claims Australia spied on ministers to gain commercial advantage.

Australia allegedly used an aid project refurbishing Timor Leste’s cabinet offices as a front to plant listening devices to eavesdrop on deliberations about the treaty in 2004.

The UN court battle was postponed in September after both sides said they were seeking an “amicable settlement”.

Before the case was postponed, the ICJ – which rules in disputes between states – had already ordered Australia to stop interfering with Timor Leste and forbidden Canberra from reading the secret documents.

Timor Leste said that Australia had now agreed to hand back the paper and electronic documents, which were seized in 2013 from Canberra offices of lawyer Bernard Collaery.

In a statement late Sunday, Timor Leste welcomed “the decision of the government of Australia to return all documents and data seized from (Timor Leste)’s legal representative in 2013”.

There was no immediate reaction from Canberra, but Collaery told the ABC: “There’s been a formal consent order made in the Hague and that was last week.”

Timor Leste said the return of the documents was just one outcome it had been seeking from the court fight and it was “taking legal advice and considering its position” on the case. — AFP