Malaysian diplomat to face charges

FLED NEW ZEALAND: Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail
FLED NEW ZEALAND: Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail

The diplomat allowed to leave New Zealand after an alleged sexual assault will return to face the charges, the Malaysian Government has announced.

In a statement on Wednesday night, it said the former defence staff assistant at the High Commission in Wellington would return to New Zealand to assist in the investigation of charges of burglary and assault with intent to commit rape.

The Malaysian Government said it had informed New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully of the decision.

It heads off an escalating diplomatic crisis as police moved to investigate his extradition.

Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail was arrested on May 10 following the alleged attack in the victim's home in the Wellington suburb of Brooklyn.

He left New Zealand without facing trial after Malaysia invoked diplomatic immunity – apparently in the belief that it did so with the blessing of the New Zealand Government.

Malaysia's foreign minister, YB Dato' Sti Anifah Aman said Rizalman would be accompanied by a senior military officer from the Ministry of Defence.

"The Malaysian Government is of the view that this decision will provide an opportunity for Mr Muhammad Rizalman to co-operate fully and assist the New Zealand authorities in the on-going investigations on the allegations made against him.

"In this regard, the legal principle that one is considered innocent until proven guilty should apply to Mr Muhammad Rizalman. The Government of Malaysia will provide legal assistance to Mr. Muhammad Rizalman if necessary.

"Malaysia has complete faith in the New Zealand legal system and has full confidence that Mr. Muhammad Rizalman will be given fair treatment with dignity as provided under the law.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said in a statement there was never any intention by either Government to let the matter rest.

"Regardless of whether the process took place in Malaysia or New Zealand there was a strong commitment to seeing justice done. The Malaysian authorities have offered their assistance with the on-going investigation and I welcome their continued involvement.’’

Foreign Affairs boss John Allen and McCully yesterday issued public apologies to the 21-year-old woman, who was allegedly attacked in her own home. But neither has contacted the woman directly, and both apologies came hours after they had apologised to their respective bosses.

Until late on Monday night the Government, from Prime Minister John Key down, claimed that Malaysia was given clear direction that New Zealand's "strong preference" was for Rizalman to face justice in New Zealand.

But on Tuesday McCully said that while the official correspondence between the two countries was clear, unofficial meetings and communication from Mfat was more ambiguous, and could have led Malaysian diplomats to believe that Wellington was comfortable with Rizalman returning to Kuala Lumpur to face a military tribunal.

"Unfortunately, the way the ministry dealt with this issue left some ambiguity around our position – which was that the accused should face justice in New Zealand," McCully said.

He had already apologised to Key for allowing him to make statements on incomplete information.

Key expressed confidence in McCully, and McCully expressed confidence in Allen, despite wide acknowledgment that Mfat's communications both internally and with the Beehive failed.

McCully admitted that while he was briefed on the situation on the day Rizalman was arrested, that was the last time it was raised with him, until the media began questioning him on Friday, more than a month after the accused and his family fled.

Allen himself was told nothing about the incident until last Friday, which he said was created by Mfat's strategy of "compartmentalising’’ information to limit its spread. He said he should have been told and that Mfat's communications policy would form part of an independent review.

Allen may face further scrutiny after he failed to follow up a warning from the Malaysians that the messages given by New Zealand were less clear than Key and McCully claimed.

The Malaysian high commissioner Rosmidah Zahid was called into a meeting with Allen on Monday night, during which she raised the fact that her officials had taken away a different message from Mfat about New Zealand's preference for where Rizalman should face justice.

However, it was only the following day after the Malaysian foreign minister indicated that he believed it was New Zealand who proposed Rizalman be allowed to leave the country that Mfat began "interrogating that data'' which showed the situation was not as clear as claimed.

"We didn't at that stage know there was in fact a foundation for what appeared to be the ambiguity that had been raised with me by the high commissioner,'' Allen said.

In the period between when Allen met Zahid and McCully admitted the situation was ambiguous, McCully warned Malaysia that the way it handled the case would have an impact on the relations between the two countries, which share trade of more than $2.6 billion a year.

McCully said "the accused has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and deserves the right to a fair trial.

"The young woman involved has been through a great deal and the way this matter has been handled has only added to her suffering. I hope she, and her family, will welcome news that the accused will return to New Zealand so the matter can be fully investigated as was always the Government’s intention.

"This is now a matter for the Police and the Courts and I will not be commenting further.’’ 

Labour foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer said the situation suggested either that there was considerable dysfunction at Mfat over the way it communicated, or that there were more questions for the Government to answer over the way it handled the situation.

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