Classified Witness J prosecution inquiry abandoned

By Naomi Neilson|27 April 2020

An inquiry into a highly sensitive, secretive government prosecution will no longer proceed with the review due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

A former senior military intelligence officer, known to the public as Alan Johns or Witness J, was prosecuted in complete secrecy for crimes only the government is aware of. This was to be the subject of an inquiry, but it has now been abandoned due to COVID-19.

The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) commenced this review in light of the publicly known facts, which “reveal that there has been an apparently unique set of circumstances” relating to Witness J’s prosecution and a potential breach of justice.

“The current COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the INSLM’s ability to effectively engage with key stakeholders and the public, therefore preventing a thorough review to be taken at this time,” the INSLM said in a statement published on the website.

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The current INSLM Dr James Renwick will finish his term 30 June, and it will be up to the incoming INSLM to consider progressing this review of the National Security Information (NSI) Act, as it relates to Witness J. This would have set a precedent for Australian courts, but for now will not be progressing as a review under the government agency.

Identifying the former inmate or his crimes has been suppressed under a Commonwealth order, which are not publicly available. Even corrective services authorities were not able to access information on his offences that led to the imprisonment.

Witness J was required to adhere to strict restrictions on communication with family while behind bars. The Australian Federal Police also requested the prison management review and inform it of any “unusual” visitor requests made in respect of the former military officer.

According to a submission from the Law Council of Australia (LCA), the decision by courts and the Attorney-General to hide information does not offer Australian courts the chance to “make its own determination about the principle of open justice”.

“Open justice is one of the primary attributes of a fair trial,” the submission read. “It is the fundamental rule of the common law that the administration of justice takes place in open court, and that secrecy or suppression is only ever appropriate where the rare exceptions to open justice have been appropriately considered and applied.”

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Attorney-General Christian Porter said in a statement last year the trial of Witness J was unique in his experience but refused to disclose any additional information on the case.

“The information was of a kind that could endanger the lives or safety of others,” Mr Porter explained to the public following increased scrutiny. “The risk remains.”

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, who argued Australians cannot permit the Attorney-General to be the “judge of his own cause”, rejected the statement as having fallen short of his position as the first law office of the Commonwealth.

Senator Patrick pledged to establish a senate inquiry to review the NSI Act.

Classified Witness J prosecution inquiry abandoned
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