AUSTRALIA’S Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) continues to withhold 157 pages of top-secret documents relating to the murder of Australian tourist David Wilson in Cambodia in 1994, officials have confirmed, defying repeated requests that it produce the documents for a coroner’s inquest.
During a senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Thursday, Penny Richards, DFAT’s senior legal adviser, said the department had “withheld” the pages from its Wilson case file, despite requests from Victorian state Coroner Judge Jennifer Coate last month to produce the file in full.
“The coroner has since written again to us seeking production of those withheld 157 pages, so she may, as the coroner, decide if they are relevant to her inquest or not,” one observer quoted Richards as saying in response to questions from New South Wales Senator Bill Heffernan.
She added: “We have not provided them yet; we are considering our position.”
The 29-year-old Wilson – along with Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet – was taken hostage by Khmer Rouge forces who ambushed their Sihanoukville-bound train in July 1994. Thirteen Cambodians also died in the attack, and the three foreigners were killed in September 1994, following a government offensive in Phnom Voar, the area where they were being held by the Khmer Rouge.
The news comes after the announcement that the Victorian coroner’s court will reopen the inquest into Wilson’s death – convened on the retirement of former coroner Graeme Johnstone in 2007 – after it obtains the full case file from DFAT.
Coate’s request for the disclosure of the file, made on January 10, followed a similar request by her predecessor when the inquest began in 1998 – both of which have yet to be fulfilled completely.
The file is believed to include hundreds of pages of documents and diplomatic cables detailing the negotiations conducted in a bid to secure Wilson’s release.
Alastair Gaisford, who was consul at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh from 1994 to 1995, and was closely involved with Wilson’s case, has said the files show that Australian officials “did nothing” to halt the government’s attack against Phnom Voar, which is widely believed to have led to the killing of the three men by their Khmer Rouge captors.
In an article published in Melbourne’s The Age on Monday, he said then-foreign minister Gareth Evans, who enjoyed a close relationship with senior Cambodian officials, ignored the embassy’s advice that he should travel to Cambodia in an effort to halt the offensive.
“The Australian government already knew and approved of a Cambodian government plan for full-scale attack on the hostage mountain, which would place their lives in danger, only a week later,” he said in the article.
Gaisford also criticised the government for blocking private attempts to pay a ransom in order to free the hostages, including an attempt by Australian businessman Ron Walker to deliver US$50,000 in gold ingots to secure Wilson’s release.
On Thursday, he told the Post that given DFAT’s continued reluctance to hand over the 157 classified pages from the Wilson case file, the documents were likely to be “critically relevant” in proving the culpability of Evans and then-prime minister Paul Keating. He said DFAT was “definitely hiding something” by withholding the documents,
Last week, a DFAT representative said by email that the department has “cooperated fully” with the coroner since the inquest began in 1998 and said it was “in contact with the Victorian coroner’s court to help facilitate the coroner’s consideration of the evidence”.
It added that “certain documents have been exempted from production under the [Freedom of Information] Act”, but that it was not appropriate to comment on the evidence in an “ongoing” inquest.
During Thursday’s hearing, lawmaker John Faulkner, representing Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, agreed there was a problem that needed to be fixed but asked for more time to find answers. “There may be considerable complexities in this,” Australian press agency AAP quoted him as saying.
Under Victoria’s 2008 Coroner’s Act, the coroner is granted the power to summon “a person to attend as a witness or to produce any document or other materials” that he or she believes necessary for the purposes of an inquest.