Courage, Conflict and Whistle Blowing

Witness K and Bernard C

Witness K and Bernard Collaery are in trouble.  They are being prosecuted as whistleblowers but the support for their cause gathers strength. The Australian Government spied on the East Timorese Government during oil and gas negotiations in 2004; this was a breach of trust between Australia and East Timor. Witness K was one of the spies who bugged the room, during an AusAid program to renovate the East Timor Government building. The Australian government neither confirms nor denies the espionage.

Witness K, who was an employee of the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS), has not been named. He was a public servant and preliminary hearings have been mainly held in secret. The prosecution was launched in 2018. It is believed that he has pleaded guilty, but the actual content of the guilty plea is not known. The date for his next hearing, believed to be for sentencing purposes, is now given as June 17th, 2021.

Bernard Collaery was solicitor for Witness K.

He is a man of distinction, previously Attorney General for the ACT. No date for his trial has yet been set though the prosecution started in 2018. There have been many preliminary hearings.

The prosecution is, in part, based on the government’s claim that the whistle blowing was not ‘in the public interest’.

The focus on this country, now named Timor Leste, brings me back more than twenty years to my own encounters with the people of East Timor. In September 1999 I spent a night in dark vigil among crowds in MacKillop Chapel. The people of East Timor were voting for independence. The diaspora in Sydney feared that when the results were announced there would be bloodshed. They prayed for UN intervention, Australian intervention, anything that might save their families, their friends, their country.

The fears were well founded. World media brought daily images of horror. The people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia and the Indonesian military and allied militias went on a rampage.

Australia intervened. The UN intervened. But not before the killings, the burnings, the total terror.

Fast forward. I stand in Dili, the capital of East Timor, and see the destruction. No street that I can see fails to show the scars. Every family that I meet tells of fear and grief. Someone takes me to a dank underground prison cell. In the rock wall a prisoner has scratched deeply the word ESPERANSA. Hope! I understood that a UN force would be funded mainly to keep the peace and engage in quick impact projects; I had seen this in Cambodia. A ceasefire, an election, and a fledgling new nation will be on its own. The generosity of developed nations stretches no further.

Fast forward once more to May 20, 2002. Because of the decades of tireless work of Josephine Mitchell and Susan Connelly, we Sisters of St Joseph were invited to attend the birth of an independent nation. I stood with Josephine as daylight turned to dark on a vast flat stretch of land outside of Dili. A colourful crowd of local people pressed around us as far as the eye could see. Timorese men, women and children had travelled from across the country, many coming from the villages for the very first time.  They had suffered for decades but now they had great hope for the triumph of independence, a free and prosperous nation bought at the cost of so much blood.

All eyes were on the brightly lit platform. What happened next I will never forget.

Xanana Gusmao stood tall and roared into the microphone with a great howl. He held the hand of the Indonesian Prime Minister on one side and the Australian Prime Minister on the other then reached his own arms high.

The crowd roared in response.

This was certainly in Australia’s interest. Can that trust ever be regained?