THE HAGUE- East Timor has launched legal action against Canberra at the UN's top court, alleging Australian intelligence officials illegally seized documents from a lawyer representing Dili in a row over spying.
Australia's domestic spy agency earlier this month raided the Canberra offices of Bernard Collaery and seized electronic and paper documents.
Collaery is representing East Timor's government in an arbitration hearing at The Hague which accuses Australia of espionage over a controversial Timor Sea oil and gas treaty. The raid came ahead of a hearing in the case.
The premises of a former intelligence agent turned whistleblower in the case against Canberra were also raided.
East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has labelled the action "unconscionable" and on Wednesday the deeply poor half-island nation launched action at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
Dili contends that the seizure of documents violated its sovereignty and rights "under international and any relevant domestic law", according to a court statement.
The country that last year celebrated a decade of independence after years of brutal Indonesian occupation demanded Australia return the documents and destroy any copies.
It also asked for "provisional measures" until the ICJ rules on the case, including that the documents be handed to the court and that Australia guarantee it will not intercept communications between East Timor and its legal advisers.
Cases at the ICJ can take months or even years to resolve.
Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has dismissed any suggestion that the raids were an attempt to interfere in the case, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has defended them as in the national interest.
A key witness who is an ex-intelligence agent will allege that Australia's foreign intelligence service 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.
That 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 some Aus$40 billion (US$36 billion).
Dili is now seeking to have the document ripped up on the grounds that Australia spied on ministers to gain a commercial advantage.