2 whistleblowers appear in Australian court over leaks

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Two whistleblowers appeared in a Canberra court on Thursday charged separately with leaking classified government information that alleges Australia bugged East Timor’s Cabinet and potential war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

Free speech demonstrators rallied outside the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court during preliminary hearings for lawyer Bernard Collaery and former army officer David McBride.

Both are at the center of a new campaign in Australia to wind back national security laws that infringe on press freedom and to provide legal protections for whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing.

Collaery is charged with conspiring with a former spy to reveal classified information about an allegation that Australia illegally bugged East Timor’s government during negotiations over the sharing of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue in 2004.

He made his first appearance in the court on Thursday a week before Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison flies to East Timor to ratify a new treaty to share Timor Sea energy riches. East Timor leaders have called for Australia to drop the case.

Collaery intends to plead not guilty and will face a three-day hearing starting Dec. 11 that will determine what if any of the evidence can be heard in open court.

McBride appeared on charges relating to the leaking of classified documents about Australian Special Air Service involvement in Afghanistan to journalists.

The leak was part of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. report broadcast in 2017 that alleged Australian troops killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan. The leak was also the target of a police raid on ABC’s Sydney headquarters in June that was widely condemned as media intimidation.

Court Registrar Annie Glover said McBride can expect to face a 10-day trial in March or April next year.

McBride said outside court he will admit to leaking documents and hopes that his trial will be open to the media.

“The government should justify why after five-to-10 years these documents could possibly hold anything which you as the public don’t deserve to know,” McBride told reporters.

“I would say it’s the opposite. You do deserve to know what went on in Afghanistan 10 years ago, there’s nothing secret about it,” he added.

Collaery declined to comment outside court on Thursday.

His co-accused, a former spy known as Witness K, intends to plead guilty and will appear in Canberra’s Magistrates Court on Thursday next week for a sentencing hearing. He faces a potential maximum prison sentence of two years.

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