DFAT bid to lock up East Timor war cables

DFAT bid to lock up East Timor war cables

 BY:BRENDAN NICHOLSON, DEFENCE EDITOR

From:The Australian 

March 21, 2012 12:00AM

 

THE Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has asked Attorney-General Nicola Roxon to sign an extraordinary order that would effectively block the release of dozens of secret cables written more than 35 years ago by Australian diplomats in Indonesia.


And DFAT wants even the reason for this secrecy kept secret.

 

It is believed the cables warned about the horrific scale of the famine in what was then Indonesian-occupied East Timor in the late 1970s, which was caused by a major Indonesian military operation against independence movements Fretilin and Falintil.

 

More than 100,000 East Timorese are believed to have died in or because of the war that followed Indonesia's invasion of the former Portuguese territory in December 1975.

 

It is not clear why DFAT is trying to stop the release of material that is historical, from a time when Indonesia was a military dictatorship.

Under the Archives Act, government documents, including diplomatic cables, are available via the National Archives to be declassified after 30 years when someone such as a researcher or a journalist asks for copies. A department can, however, claim an exemption on the grounds that material might threaten security, defence or international relations.

 

The original request for copies of the documents, stored in the National Archives in Canberra, was made by former Australian army intelligence officer Clinton Fernandes, who is now an associate professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Professor Fernandes believes the documents were kept secret because the Fraser government was focused on appeasing president Suharto's regime and did not want the scale of the deaths in East Timor to become public, possibly triggering an uproar that would increase tensions with Jakarta.

 

He believes the cables were written by senior Australian diplomats appalled by what they saw on a visit to East Timor.

 

Professor Fernandes said it was important for the documents to be made public because they revealed Australia might have tried to stop a massive human tragedy becoming public.

 

When his initial request was rejected by the archives, Professor Fernandes appealed through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The tribunal has the power to order the release of the documents, which would leave DFAT with the option of appealing to a higher court to stop that happening.

DFAT has asked Ms Roxon to sign a "public interest certificate" -- designed to prevent harm being done to Australia's security, defence or international relations -- allowing the department to keep secret the reasons it does wants the material kept secret.

 

Professor Fernandes told The Australian that if he were not allowed to hear DFAT's reasons for wanting the documents kept from public view, he would not be able to mount an effective case for their release.

 

"I can't win the case unless I know what the government's case is so I can rebut it," he said.

 

Ms Roxon's spokesman confirmed that she had been asked to issue a public interest certificate to protect material that would be relied upon in proceedings before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

publicado por Eskalabis às 14:32
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