Mfat official takes blame for diplomat bungle

Last updated 05:00 04/07/2014

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A mid-level foreign affairs official appears set to take the blame for an incident in which a foreign diplomat accused of attempted rape was allowed to leave the country, a move his government thought had New Zealand’s blessing.

Yesterday Prime Minister John Key dismissed questions about whether Foreign Minister Murray McCully should resign, saying he would not accept it if he did, because McCully had been let down by officials.

He signalled that a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who left the possible impression that New Zealand was not clear that it wanted the man to face justice here should assess their career options.

‘‘If that person doesn’t have clarity about that position then they need to think very strongly about whether they’re in the right job,’’ Key said. The situation had added to the distress of the victim by creating ambiguity.

‘‘That led to a situation that is unacceptable to me, and I think it is very distressing for the woman,’’ Key said.

An independent inquiry will be conducted into how the ambiguity over New Zealand’s position was created, and why it took so long for Mfat to inform the Government that Malaysia believed it had acted in accordance with New Zealand’s wishes, contradicting earlier advice.

McCully was told about the incident on May 12 but did not hear about it again until it was raised by the media. Mfat chief executive John Allen says he learned about the incident for the first time last week.

On May 10, Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail was arrested on charges of burglary and attempted rape in relation to an alleged attack on a 21 year-old woman in her home in Brooklyn in Wellington.

The same day Mfat issued a formal request that Rizalman, an assistant to the defence attache for the Malaysian High Commission in Wellington, waive diplomatic immunity in order to face charges.

However, two days later Mary Oliver, the deputy chief of protocol at Mfat, met counterparts at the Malaysian High Commission to discuss the situation.

According to the Malaysian foreign minister it was at this meeting that ‘‘the New Zealand side had offered an alternative for the accused to be brought back to Malaysia. It was never our intention to treat the matter lightly’’.

Rizalman left the country on May 22, a day after Malaysia declined the request to waive immunity, asking for the police case to be sealed.

Initially the Government, from the prime minister down, said that Malaysian officials had repeatedly been asked to pass on that it was New Zealand’s ‘‘clear preference’’ for Rizalman to face justice here.

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However late on Tuesday night McCully admitted that the communications could have led to ambiguity, and the Malaysians had acted in a way which they believed was acceptable to New Zealand.

On Wednesday night the Malaysian government confirmed that Rizalman would return to New Zealand to assist with the investigation. 

Oliver declined to comment yesterday, because she was still a public servant ‘‘as far as I know’’.

Sources said Oliver was a long time staffer who had served in a number of overseas postings. She reported to head of protocol Caroline Bilkey, who was last month named as New Zealand’s next Ambassador to Brazil.  Bilkey reports to deputy secretary Lucy Duncan. Sources confirmed that the protocol division is expected to be the subject of the inquiry.

Last night a spokeswoman for the prime minister said Key did not know the identity of the official involved in the incident, other than that they worked in protocol.

Mfat refused to comment on what it said were ‘‘employment matters’’ and an inquiry would look into its handling of protocol and communication.

Former foreign minister Phil Goff, the Labour MP for Mt Roskill, said last night that McCully should at least offer to resign over the incident.

Green MP Jan Logie, who says she is in contact with the alleged victim, says the woman was pleased that Rizalman would be returned to New Zealand.


- The Dominion Post

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