A high-profile lawyer has raised concerns about the Federal Government’s legal action against whistleblowers.

Solicitor Bernard Collaery and his client, an intelligence officer known as Witness K, are facing criminal charges for revealing Australia’s bugging of Timor-Leste’s cabinet rooms during negotiations over a $40 billion oil and gas treaty in 2004.

The bugs were placed in an attempt to give Australia an upper hand and profit at the expense of the Timor-Leste government, but Witness K believed it was unlawful.

Former New South Wales supreme court justice Anthony Whealy, now chair of Transparency International, said it is “deeply disturbing”.

“By any standards, the information revealed by these two men needed to be conveyed, and indeed needed to be in the public domain,” Mr Whealy told Guardian Australia.

“On its face, the bugging by Australian interests of a foreign power’s cabinet room, if that is what happened, was detestable.

“It is equally disturbing that, at this stage, the threat looms that proceedings against the pair will occur in a closed courtroom, with its doors and windows barred by a potential suppression order.

“This is Australia … not Russia.”

He said concern is compounded by the fact that the Federal Government has passed new espionage and foreign interference laws.

The summons for Witness K and Mr Collaery reportedly accuses the spy of unlawfully communicating intelligence secrets to his lawyer, and that Mr Collaery communicated this information to ABC journalists Marian Wilkinson, Peter Lloyd, Conor Duffy, Emma Alberici and producer Peter Cronau.

News Corp journalist Leo Shanahan, who broke the story on the bugging operation first, is not named in the summons.

Mr Whealy’s comments come just days after former Victorian court of appeals judge Stephen Charles expressed similar alarm.

“I think it shines a light on the level of ethics and morality of parliament in Canberra that above all demonstrates we need a national integrity commission,” he told Fairfax Media.

“A lot of people in legal circles are horrified by the government’s behaviour.”