Malaysian diplomat case inquiry head named

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 12:20 11/07/2014
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JOHN WHITEHEAD: Secretary to the Treasury from 2003 to 2011.
Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail
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Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail

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One of New Zealand's most respected former public servants will head a ministerial inquiry into why a Malaysian diplomat was allowed to leave New Zealand while facing an attempted-rape charge.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has just confirmed that John Whitehead, Secretary to the Treasury from 2003 to 2011, will  head the inquiry into how "ambiguity" was created about New Zealand's position on the fate of Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail.

"A thorough and transparent inquiry is important, as those managing diplomatic immunity issues for the Government need to enjoy the full, unfettered confidence of the New Zealand public," McCully said in a statement.

According to McCully, the inquiry would focus on "the appropriateness and robustness" of procedures to deal with circumstances in which a waiver of diplomatic immunity is sought by the Government, as well as the particular events in relation to the Malaysian diplomat.

"The Inquiry report will recommend ways to rectify shortcomings and strengthen processes for the future management of diplomatic immunity cases," McCully said.

"These events have had a serious impact on a young woman and have quite rightly undermined public confidence in the ability of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat). It is important that we do all we can to improve the management of these cases."

Rizalman was arrested on May 10 on charges of burglary and attempted rape following an alleged attack in the Wellington suburb of Brooklyn. The same day the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) issued a formal request for diplomatic immunity to be waived. The request was rebuffed and Rizalman left New Zealand on May 22.

Last week John Allen, chief executive of Mfat, announced an inquiry into the events which led the Malaysian Government to believe it had Wellington's approval to have Rizalman leave to face a military tribunal at home.

Initially the New Zealand Government, from the Prime Minister John Key down, claimed that Kuala Lumpur had been given a clear message that New Zealand's strong preference was for Rizalman to face justice here.

But McCully later issued a public apology to Key, after acknowledging that "ambiguity" had been created after contact between the Malaysian High Commission and Mfat in the days following the formal request.

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McCully later issued a public apology through the media to the victim of the alleged attack.

This week Tania Billingsley, the alleged victim of the attack, waived her right to name suppression and gave a televised interview to TV3's 3rd Degree in which she called for McCully to resign over his handling of the affair.

Whitehead was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2011 Queen's Birthday honours, the year he stepped down as head of the Treasury.

He had earlier served as economic adviser to Labour Prime Minister David Lange and worked at the New Zealand High Commission in London.

- Stuff

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