Correction: New Zealand-Diplomatic Immunity story

AP News
Posted: Nov 03, 2014 7:25 PM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — In a story Oct. 25 about a Malaysian military officer facing sexual assault charges in New Zealand, The Associated Press erroneously reported the Malaysian foreign minister's name. It should have been Anifah Aman, not Kenyataan Akhbar.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Malaysian officer back to face New Zealand charges

Malaysian officer back in New Zealand to face sexual assault charges in diplomatic case


Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A Malaysian military officer was back in a New Zealand court Saturday to face sexual assault charges five months after he left the country under the protection of diplomatic immunity.

Muhammad Rizalman Ismail did not say anything during his brief appearance at the Wellington District Court. He was taken into police custody and scheduled to reappear before a judge Tuesday.

The case has proved to be diplomatically embarrassing for both Malaysia and New Zealand. The two countries have offered varying accounts of why the official, who worked at the Malaysian Embassy in Wellington, was initially allowed to leave.

It has also raised questions about the moral implications of the Vienna Convention, which offers special legal protections to diplomats and their embassy staff.

Both countries hope that Rizalman's return to New Zealand will help ease those concerns. He was extradited this week under an agreement between the two countries, which don't have a formal extradition treaty.

Rizalman will now face the charges as an ordinary citizen without diplomatic immunity.

About a half dozen Malaysian Embassy officials attended Saturday's court appearance. They said they were there to offer Rizalman assistance but declined further comment.

Rizalman was arrested May 9 for allegedly following a 21-year-old woman home and assaulting her. He was charged with burglary and assault with the intent to rape, each of which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

He returned to Malaysia less than two weeks later under diplomatic immunity protection.

When the case came under media scrutiny, New Zealand officials at first insisted that Malaysia had invoked the diplomatic protections against their will.

But Malaysia's Foreign Affairs Minister Anifah Aman countered that "the New Zealand side had offered an alternative for the accused to be brought back to Malaysia."

New Zealand officials then conceded they may have given the mistaken impression they didn't oppose Rizalman returning home. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully apologized to the alleged victim, Tania Billingsley, for "the poor management of this case."

Billingsley in July decided to identify herself and speak out publicly, saying she felt frustrated and angry Rizalman had been able to leave.

His return to New Zealand came after months of delay as Malaysia's government said Rizalman had to undergo physical and mental examinations to ensure he was fit to stand trial, and lawyers drafted a special extradition document.

Malaysian officials have expressed concerns about Billingsley's decision to speak publicly, saying anybody involved in a case shouldn't be speaking in way which could prejudice a defendant's right to a fair trial.

The 1961 Vienna Convention spells out the special protections afforded to diplomats and their embassy staff. Diplomats enjoy full immunity from local laws; staff are immune from criminal prosecution but not from certain civil matters.

The home country can choose to waive immunity in any particular case, and diplomats and their staff can face legal sanctions when they return home.

The United Nations says the convention reflects practice from the earliest historical times, when an envoy was assured safe passage in order to negotiate a truce or settle a squabble. These days, the U.N. says, the protections allow embassies to act without fear of local harassment or coercion.