THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — East Timor asked the United Nations’ highest court Monday to order Australia to turn over documents and data its agents seized from the impoverished nation’s lawyer last month ahead of arbitration in a multibillion-dollar treaty dispute.
The International Court of Justice opened three days of hearings into East Timor’s request for the U.N. panel to order Australia to immediately turn over the seized documents pending the outcome of a case challenging the legality of Australia’s raid on the lawyer’s office in Canberra.
Monday’s hearing was the latest step in a high-stakes legal battle pitting resource-rich Australia against its tiny and impoverished northern neighbor over the oil and gas under the sea that divides them.
East Timor lawyer Elihu Lauterpacht urged judges to deliver “a clear, firm and severe condemnation of what Australia has done” and order Canberra to seal all the documents and data and turn them over to the court.
Australian Security Intelligence Organization agents last month raided the Canberra homes of lawyer Bernard Collaery and a former spy who intended to testify in hearings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration that Australia allegedly bugged the East Timorese Cabinet ahead of sensitive oil-and-gas revenue-sharing negotiations.
East Timorese Minister of State Agio Pereira said the Australian agents also seized the spy’s passport, preventing him from traveling to The Hague to testify in the arbitration case. The spy cannot be identified for legal reasons.
Pereira said the documents relate to East Timor’s challenge to the validity of a bilateral treaty struck with Australia in 2006 over sharing seabed oil and gas reserves worth billions of dollars.
East Timor argues that the 2006 treaty is invalid because Australia had illegally bugged government offices and listened to confidential discussions relating to the negotiations.
“It is simply unconscionable that one party to negotiations or litigation should be able to place itself by these means in such a position of advantage over the other,” Lauterpacht told the court Monday.
Australian Attorney General George Brandis, who authorized the ASIO raids, would not comment on the case Monday because the dispute was before the court. Australia is presenting its case Tuesday.
Brandis had previously said he 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 1999. Indonesia had previously struck a similar agreement to share the seabed.
Rulings by the International Court of Justice are final and legally binding.