Australian war crimes whistleblower David McBride pleaded guilty on Friday to three charges of stealing and unlawfully sharing military information. In a statement outside the courtroom, McBride’s lawyer Kieran Pender, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre said:
There is no public interest in prosecuting whistleblowers, and certainly no public interest in sending them to jail. If McBride is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, the Attorney-General should immediately pardon him to recognise the dangerous impact this case is having on Australian democracy.
Pender went on to call the guilty plea a “warning sign” that reforms to federal whistleblowing laws were “urgent and long overdue.”
McBride is a former military lawyer accused of leaking documents containing evidence of possible war crimes committed by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan. He faces a slew of charges linked to the unauthorized disclosure of protected documents. The case has sparked widespread debate over the role of whistleblowers in revealing wrongdoing, and how to balance the interests of national security versus public transparency. Opinions on his actions vary broadly, with supporters viewing him as a courageous advocate for accountability, and detractors viewing the alleged leaks as disloyal and morally objectionable.
Advocates decried the development, with former Senator Rex Patrick and founder of the Whistleblower Justice Fund saying. “In one single moment whistleblowing in Australia has been shut down.” The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) also expressed their disappointment in the prosecution, saying in a statement that:
NSWCCL has repeatedly called on the attorney general to use his extraordinary powers to intervene and end the prosecution. We are profoundly disappointed that the AG has determined that this prosecution is in the public interest. It is NOT. Whistleblowers who bring information to light must not be subjected to a public show of prosecution under the guise of national security, or be censored because their story may cause embarrassment or cost to those in power. This case proves yet again that whistleblowers are not adequately protected in Australia.
Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, KC previously said he is “strongly of the view that integrity and rule of law are central to Australia’s criminal justice arrangements,” continuing that “the government is committed to delivering strong, effective and accessible protections for whistleblowers.”
McBride is set to face sentencing in early 2024. Last year, the case of lawyer Bernard Collaery ignited the secrecy row in Australia. Alongside McBride, Richard Boyle, who exposed unethical debt collection practices within the Australian Tax Office. is also facing charges.
JURIST previously interviewed Pender about McBride’s case and its implications for whistleblowers in Australia. The full interview can be found here.