AMSTERDAM (REUTERS) - Timor Leste demanded on Monday that Australia return seized documents relating to the two countries' negotiations over oil and gas reserves thought to be worth tens of billions of dollars.
The dispute brought before the United Nations' top court pits one of Asia's poorest countries against its wealthy giant neighbour, Australia, in a case involving spy agencies, bugging allegations, snatched documents and potentially huge rewards from developing oil and gas fields.
The hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, in a case brought by Timor Leste against Australia, concern seized documents allegedly showing how Australia may have used intelligence to outmanoeuvre Timor Leste in talks over the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields.
The two countries are in dispute over revenue-sharing as well as how best to develop the gas fields, located 150 km southeast of Timor Leste and 450 km northwest of Darwin, Australia.
The seized documents contained legal advice and details of Timor Leste's negotiating position and strategy in relation to Australia, Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, Timor Leste's lawyer, told judges on Monday, putting Dili "at a considerable negotiating and litigating disadvantage".
Timor Leste wants the ICJ to order the return of documents and other material which was seized during raids by Australia's domestic spy agency on the Canberra offices of a lawyer representing Timor Leste over Australian bugging claims and an unnamed former spy-turned-whistleblower.
The treaty "is invalid and ineffective because Australia secretly and unlawfully spied on Timor Leste, bugging its government offices and listening in to highly confidential discussions during the course of the negotiations," Timor Leste said in a statement. "Such conduct is a violation of international law," it added.
The Southeast Asian nation, which gained independence in 2002, says that officers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) seized correspondence between the government of Timor Leste and its legal advisers, including documents relating to a pending arbitration under the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty between East Timor and Australia.
Timor Leste is also bringing an arbitration case in The Hague over allegations that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) bugged Timor Leste government offices in Dili during the 2004 negotiations over the maritime boundary between Australia and Timor Leste and the revenue split from the Greater Sunrise gas fields.
Australia's Woodside Petroleum is contracted to develop the Sunrise LNG plant but is stuck in the middle of the dispute.
While Woodside prefers a floating LNG plant, Timor Leste is pushing for an onshore plant that will provide jobs for locals, leaving the project at a stalemate.