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Portugal Takes Australia to Court for Drilling off East Timor

A TWO-DECADE-OLD fight over Indonesia's seizure of East Timor has moved from the hills of the military-occupied island to the halls of justice in the Netherlands.

Indonesia brutally took over East Timor after Portugal abandoned its colony in 1975. Portugal has since opposed the takeover. Now, a hearing has opened at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in which Portugal is challenging the Timor Gap Agreement: a pact between Indonesia and Australia that establishes a 38,125 square-mile zone of economic cooperation in the seas between Australia's northern coast and East Timor.

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Portugal says Indonesia and Australia are granting concessions to oil companies in territory that does not belong to them.

Indonesia itself is absent from the case. In a statement Jan. 30, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas warned that Portugal's challenge at the ICJ could undermine ongoing UN-mediated talks between Lisbon and Jakarta over East Timor.

Australian lawyers contend that Portugal has the wrong party in court. Indonesia, which does not accept ICJ jurisdiction, is the real target, they claim, and the court should throw the case out if Portugal's masked intent is to raise a challenge to Indonesia's claim to East Timor. They further argue that Australia's signing of the pact was not an endorsement of Indonesia's takeover.

Australian Ambassador to the Hague Michael Tate calls the case regrettable. ``The real dispute is with Indonesia,'' he says. ``We will argue that there is no basis in international law for Portugal's case.''

The absent party, the Indonesian government, has so far refused to comment, but its diplomats are monitoring the case.

If Portugal's lawyers can survive this aspect of the Australian challenge during the three-week hearings they will be on relatively firm ground. They have on their side the fact that they are appealing to a United Nations court to respect and uphold past UN resolutions, which do not recognize Indonesian sovereignty in East Timor and consider Portugal as the legal administering power.

``Our entire case is based on UN decisions,'' says Portuguese lawyer Miguel Galvao Telles.

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Both sides have assembled an impressive array of international legal experts and a verdict is expected by summer.

A victory for Portugal would jeopardize millions of dollars of investment by international companies in the Timor Gap zone, although whether or not it would lead to an actual freezing of operations is unclear, given that the ICJ's decisions are ``binding'' on member states, but not ``compulsory,'' and that it has no machinery to enforce them.

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