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E. Timor demands return of documents at UN court

THE HAGUE -- East Timor was “shocked” when Australian agents raided one of its lawyer's offices, the top U.N. court heard Monday, with Dili demanding the return of sensitive documents seized in the swoop.

East Timor has dragged Canberra to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague seeking the return of the documents relating to a controversial oil and gas treaty between the two countries which Dili wants torn up.

With billions of dollars in natural resources at stake, the cloak-and-dagger case could prove highly embarrassing for Australia, which on Monday again declined to comment on the case.

The raid “caused deep offence and shock to my country,” East Timor's representative Joaquim da Fonseca told the first day of hearings at the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states.

“The government and the people of Timor-Leste feel a real sense of grievance at the manner in which they were treated by our large neighbor,” Da Fonseca said.

At the heart of the David and Goliath dispute is the treaty signed in 2006 between Canberra and Dili, shortly after East Timor's independence from Indonesia.

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

The treaty “is invalid and ineffective because Australia secretly and unlawfully spied on Timor-Leste, bugging its government offices and listening in to highly confidential discussions during the course of the negotiations,” East Timor said in a statement.

“Such conduct is a violation of international law,” it added.

The documents seized by Australia relate to East Timor's bid to have the treaty scrapped, which is currently being heard at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, housed in the same building as the ICJ.

If Australia studies the documents it could have “unforeseeable detrimental consequences and associated irreparable harm,” East Timor's representative Elihu Lauterpacht told a bench of 16 ICJ judges.

He said Australia's conduct in seizing the documents “defies understanding.”

East Timor gained its independence in 2002 following years of brutal Indonesian occupation but remains underdeveloped with a sluggish economy that is heavily dependent on oil and gas.

The controversial treaty, Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, or CMATS, set out a 50-50 split of proceeds from the vast maritime energy fields between Australia and East Timor estimated at 26 billion euros (US$36 billion).

“We are one of the poorest countries in the world, so we need those resources, the oil and the gas, to help the development of our country,” East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Luis Gutteres told AFP after the hearing.

Australian representatives declined to comment.

Ambassador Da Fonseca however played down tensions between the two countries, saying that the relationship between Australia and East Timor “remains close and friendly.”

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