Former Australian spy Witness K spared jail

The former Australian spy known as Witness K has been handed a three-month suspended sentence for conspiring to reveal classified information about an alleged Australian operation to bug East Timor’s cabinet rooms during sensitive oil and gas treaty negotiations.

In a sentencing hearing in the ACT Magistrates Court on Friday, Magistrate Glenn Theakston chose not to jail the former spy, who was obscured from the view of the courtroom behind a wall of black panels.

Protesters supporting Witness K’s former lawyer Bernard Collaery in front of the Law Courts in 2019.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Witness K pleaded guilty to the charges on Thursday.

The former ASIS intelligence officer helped expose an alleged 2004 bugging operation against East Timor that appeared to aid Australia in gaining an advantage in commercial negotiations to carve up oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea.

The actions of Witness K and his former lawyer, Bernard Collaery, helped the East Timor government build a case against Australia at The Hague, which led to Canberra renegotiating the deal.

Witness K had always indicated he would plead guilty to breaching secrecy laws but there have been years of drawn-out negotiations between his defence and the prosecution over the agreed facts of the case as well as evidence that could be submitted in open court.

Lawyer Bernard Collaery is also being prosecuted for allegedly helping his then client, Witness K, reveal aspects of an alleged secret bugging operation against East Timor.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Collaery, a barrister and former ACT attorney-general, is facing the prospect of jail for allegedly helping his client.

Mr Collaery is continuing to fight the charges against him in the ACT Supreme Court, where a two-day court hearing into an appeal brought by him challenging a secrecy order was last month held behind closed doors.

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender said in a statement that the saga is a “dark chapter in Australia’s history”.

“Witness K did the right thing. Whistleblowers should be protected, not punished.

“Instead of recognising the important role Witness K played in exposing wrongdoing, he was charged, prosecuted and has now been sentenced, with much of this process taking place in secret.”

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