Updated: 03/04/2014 03:06 | By Agence France-Presse

UN court tells Australia to back off in E.Timor spy row

The UN's International Court of Justice on Monday ordered Australia to stop interfering with East Timor in a bitter spy row, forbidding Canberra from reading secret documents seized from Dili's lawyers.

UN court tells Australia to back off in E.Timor spy row

This photo taken on December 6, 2013 shows East Timorese policemen standing guard while youths hold a protest against the Australian government over claims of espionage in Dili - by Valentino de Sousa

East Timor in January dragged Canberra to the Hague-based ICJ, seeking the return of the documents relating to a controversial multi-billion-dollar oil and gas treaty between the two countries, which Dili now wants torn up.

Australian agents seized the documents in December in a raid on the Canberra offices of East Timor's lawyer, Bernard Colleary. 

Australia's representatives told ICJ judges in January that the seizure was prompted by "national security" issues, but Dili said it was "shocked" at the treatment meted out by its giant neighbour.

Dili then asked the ICJ -- which rules in disputes between states -- to order Australia to stop alleged eavesdropping on East Timor and its lawyers and hand back the seized documents.

"Australia shall not interfere in any way in communications between Timor-Leste and its legal advisers," ICJ president Peter Tomka ordered on Monday.

Canberra could for now keep the documents it took in the raid, but must keep them "under seal... until a further decision of the court", Judge Tomka added.

Furthermore, Australia had to ensure that the content of the secret material "is not in any or at any time used... to the disadvantage" of East Timor, the judge said.      

At the heart of the David and Goliath dispute is the treaty signed in 2006 between Dili and its southern neighbour, four years after East Timor's independence from Indonesia.

Australia allegedly used an aid programme as cover to bug East Timor's cabinet offices so it could listen in on discussions about the treaty.

East Timor has accused Australia of spying to gain a commercial advantage during 2004 negotiations over the Timor Sea gas treaty, called the Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, or CMATS, which covers a vast gas field between the two nations worth billions of euros.

Dili now wants the treaty scrapped.

The two states are currently involved in a separate, behind-closed-doors case on the issue before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is in the same building as the ICJ.

Dili's key witness in that case is a former Australian Secret Intelligence Services (ASIS) officer, who reportedly alleges that Canberra 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 the treaty in 2004.

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