SYDNEY(AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday defended intelligence raids on the offices of a lawyer representing East Timor in a spying case against Canberra, saying they were necessary for national security.
Mr Abbott's government is under fire after lawyer Bernard Collaery's offices were raided by the domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), on Tuesday and a range of material seized on a secret warrant.
Mr Collaery is representing East Timor's government in an arbitration at The Hague accusing Australia of espionage over a controversial Timor Sea gas treaty, and has described the raids as "intimidatory" tactics ahead of a hearing in the case Thursday.
The Labor-Greens opposition called for an explanation from Attorney-General George Brandis, with Labor Senator Penny Wong saying the raids brought into question the "integrity of the rule of law".
But Mr Abbott defended the move as in Australia's national interest.
"We don't interfere in cases but we always act to ensure that our national security is being properly upheld - that's what we're doing," the he said.
"One of the important things that government does is protect national security."
In a statement confirming he had ordered the raids on Tuesday night, Mr Brandis said the documents seized "contained intelligence related to security matters" and dismissed any suggestion that they were an attempt to interfere in the case at The Hague.
"I have instructed ASIO that the material taken into possession is not under any circumstances to be communicated to those conducting those proceedings on behalf of Australia," Mr Brandis said.
In a separate ASIO operation on Tuesday, Mr Collaery said the key witness in his case, a retired senior intelligence officer-turned-whistleblower, was detained and questioned at length before his passport was cancelled to prevent him from travelling to The Hague to testify.
"This proceeding will continue. The evidence is available here in the Hague as I speak," Mr Collaery told ABC television.
"Muzzling the oral evidence of the prime witness is so crass. What do you think the tribunal is going to think of it? It's a contemptuous action."
Mr Collaery's witness will allege that Australia's foreign intelligence service, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), used an aid project refurbishing East Timor's cabinet offices as a front to plant listening devices in the walls in order to eavesdrop on deliberations about a Timor Sea gas treaty in 2004.
That treaty, Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, or CMATS, set out a 50-50 split of proceeds from the vast maritime gas fields between Australia and East Timor estimated at some Aus$40 billion (S$45 billion).
Dili is now seeking to have the document ripped up on the grounds that Australia spied on ministers to gain a commercial advantage.
"If this had happened in Wall Street... people would go to jail. This is inside trading to get extra revenue. It had nothing to do with protecting our country," said Mr Collaery.