Disgraced diplomat Muhammad Rizalman gets 9 months' home detention for indecent assault

By Jimmy Ellingham

Disgraced diplomat Muhammad Rizalman has been sentenced to nine months' home detention for indecently assaulting Wellington woman Tania Billingsley.

The Crown accepted he was eligible for home detention.

The defence, meanwhile, said Rizalman was sorry and had written a letter of apology and offered to pay reparation. It also argued he deserved a sentence less severe than home detention.

It had previously indicated it would apply for a discharge without conviction but no application was made today. Rizalman was also convicted and given a three-strikes warning.

The hearing in the High Court at Wellington heard submissions from defence lawyer Dr Donald Stevens, QC, and Crown prosecutor Grant Burston.

Justice David Collins told Rizalman: "You terrorised Ms Billingsley. She was a young woman, alone in her room, who was entitled to feel safe and secure in her bedroom.
"I've carefully read Ms Billingsley's victim impact statement.

Plainly your actions terrified her.

"No woman should have to endure the terrifying circumstances experienced by Ms Billingsley when you breached the sanctity of her bedroom."

Rizalman showed a "high level of premeditation", however, he didn't touch her in a sexual way.

Justice Collins said he's received a victim impact statement from Ms Billingsley and she wished for it to be suppressed. The judge granted that.

The judge accepted Rizalman had an exemplary record of service and said his family were also "innocent victims" of his offending because of publicity surrounding the case.

Justice Collins began his sentencing calculations at 27 months' prison then gave discounts for previous good character, Rizalman's co-operation in returning to New Zealand, the likelihood of losing his career, time on bail, guilty plea and offer of reparation.

However, the judge didn't give any time off for remorse, despite the letter of apology.

"When you were giving evidence before me I was struck by your lack of insight into your offending and your lack of appreciation as to your conduct."

The home detention sentence cannot be served at the Malaysian High Commission, but will be at a property rented by the Malaysian Government. Its address is suppressed.

After the sentence Rizalman will be deported.

Outside court, victim advocate Louise Nicholas read a statement on behalf of Ms Billingsley.

She said she was relieved the process was over and she could move forward.

"While court has been long and draining I acknowledge that I'm one of a small percentage of survivors that even get the chance to go through the process and get closure."

Ms Billingsley thanked those who had supported her.

Ms Nicholas said she and Ms Billingsley were disappointed Rizalman hadn't been ordered to get help.

THE FACTS

On May 9, 2014, Rizalman, an assistant to the defence attache at the Malaysian High Commission, followed Ms Billingsley to her home in Brooklyn, Wellington. After waiting outside for 30 to 40 minutes, he walked in the unlocked front door and appeared in her bedroom, naked from the waist down.

A struggle ensued in which Rizalman grabbed her shoulders. Rizalman said he admitted the indecent assault charge on the basis his half-nakedness was indecent.

He claimed he'd followed Ms Billingsley after she'd given him a "signal" by smiling at him and he simply wanted to talk to her about his problems. The Crown argued there was a sexual motive and Justice Collins agreed.

Rizalman claimed he stayed outside the flat initially as he was waiting for an invitation to enter, but he then had an emergency bout of diarrhea and defecated on Ms Billingsley's patio.

He said he then entered her flat as he searched for a bathroom to clean himself up.

The Crown, however, alleged that Rizalman, a believer in black magic, was trying to put a spell on Ms Billingsley.

He initially said he'd met Ms Billingsley at the movies, returned to her home and the pair argued over him eating her food.

Rizalman arrived in New Zealand in September 2013, but his behaviour changed in 2014.

He bought synthetic cannabis from a Wellington shop, where he behaved inappropriately towards a shop assistant.

On May 8, 2014, he tried to "pick up" another woman in town.

LAWYERS' SUBMISSIONS

Mr Burston said taking into account the facts and how Rizalman terrorised Ms Billingsley, the judge should begin his sentencing calculations at a two-year, nine-month prison sentence.

Rizalman could then get credit for a guilty plea and previous good record, although that should be "tempered" by Rizalman's challenge to the facts of the case.

The judge could also take into account the lengthy period of time Rizalman had on bail, Mr Burston said, and for the offer of emotional harm reparation.

Mr Burston said the Crown accepted Rizalman could serve a home detention sentence.

Dr Stevens said Rizalman had written a letter of apology to the victim and made a "substantial" offer of emotional harm reparation, although he didn't state the amount.

"Could I first say that Mr Rizalman acknowledges the wrong that has been done to the complainant. He very much regrets what happened in an event that was entirely out of character," he said.

"It is accepted by the defence that this was a serious matter involving the defendant following the complainant home and entering her house in the early evening without authority.

"But having said that, Your Honour, it needs to be kept in mind that there was no sexual assault and no sexual attack. Rather, as we know, there was an indecent assault, because the defendant took hold of the complainant's upper arms, which he said he did to try and calm her down, and he did that as she, or immediately after, she leaped from her bed yelling and screaming at him."

That was after he gently knocked on the door, as Ms Billingsley described, said "hello" and asked to come in. Dr Stevens said Ms Billingsley said that was said "normally, as though nothing was wrong".

Ms Billingsley's reaction was understandable and it was clear she was "intent on pre-empting what she feared might happen", the defence lawyer said.

Rizalman, however, tried to calm the situation.

"What is particularly unusual, in my submission, about this case, about this indecent assault, is it did not involve any sexual touching or sexual assault."

It was accepted Rizalman did not intend to sexually violate Ms Billingsley or force himself on her in a sexual way, although the court decided there was sexual motive.

Dr Stevens said there was nothing to suggest Rizalman would sexually assault her if she did not respond favourably to his sexual interest.

The situation was "unique" for a sexual assault case.

"The tragedy of the case is that Ms Billingsley understandably perceived the situation as the worst, but the actuality was that the defendant's intention was completely different."

Dr Stevens said the case didn't require a sanction "as stern as home detention". He suggested the judge start his calculations at 12 months' jail and deduct time for the guilty plea, time on bail and other serious consequences he will face.

Rizalman's action were "entirely out of character".

"Mr Rizalman is 39 years of age. He had led an exemplary life. He has no prior convictions."

He'd had a successful 21-year military career and was described by a superior as having no record of misconduct and always respectful.

He also chose not to contest extradition to New Zealand when he might have had a good case to do so.

Others described him as responsible and an impressive family man, Dr Stevens said.
This conviction would likely result in a dishonourable discharge from the army and he could find it hard to get another job.

Dr Steven's comments on parts of the victim impact statement cannot be reported because of the suppression order.

Earlier, Mr Burston said Ms Billingsley's 111 call demonstrated the trauma she suffered and he sought to play that to the court to show the seriousness of the indecent assault.

"Part of the affect that people don't understand in relation to her [is] just how serious the impact was and the request is made so other people can understand why this indecent assault was so serious."

Dr Stevens opposed this, saying the victim impact statement was comprehensive.
"The defence accept that this was a frightening experience for the complainant. There's no dispute about that."

The recording was not played.

The day he was due to stand trial, Rizalman admitted the indecent assault charge. No evidence was offered on a charge of assault with intent to commit sexual violation. A burglary charge was dropped.

The National Council of Women of New Zealand said commentary around the diplomat's assault on Ms Billingsley should be a wake-up call for New Zealanders to change their attitudes to violence.

National President Rae Duff said several commentators criticised the Wellington woman when she spoke out after details of her case became public.

The comments that she led her victim on were part of our "culture of victim blaming".

Ms Duff said claims that by speaking out Ms Billingsley exploited her misfortune and didn't act in a way that was expected of a victim of a sexual assault showed a stereotype existed about how victims should behave.

"We see victim-blaming all the time and it needs to stop. The criticism that victims attract contributes to the alarmingly low rate of reporting of sexual violence," she said.

"Anyone who makes jokes about rape or assault or comments around what women should and shouldn't do to avoid being attacked need to stop. We need to put the focus on changing our culture towards women, which currently leads to many men hurting women."

Meanwhile, a report into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's decision to grant Rizalman immunity from prosecution will be released tomorrow.

Two days after being charged with sexual offences, Rizalman returned to Malaysia, having invoked diplomatic immunity.

A report into the ministry's decision to grant him immunity from prosecution, completed in December 2014 by former Treasury secretary John Whitehead, has remained secret.

But today a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully confirmed the report would finally be made public tomorrow.

"We will be releasing the Whitehead Report within the next 24 hours," said a spokesman for Mr McCully.

Mr McCully would hold a press conference in the morning at Auckland Airport on his way to Waitangi Day celebrations.

Prime Minister John Key has previously criticised the way a ministry staffer handled the affair.

Opposition MPs have criticised the report's delay and were again vocal when approached by NZME this week.

"It should be released as soon as he's sentenced," said Labour foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer.

The report was not about the court case, but the ministry's internal processes.

"It's clearly just Murray McCully trying to hide behind procedure. There must be something in there that's embarrassing for Murray McCully that he's delayed it for so long."

Green MP Jan Logie said the investigation's scope should have included Mr McCully's role in the imbroglio.

"I don't know anyone who understands the rationale as to why they can't release it.

"It was an investigation into the actions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade."

Neither Mr Shearer nor Ms Logie had seen the report, but she expected it to point to a number of failings.

Mr McCully's office did not wish to respond to opposition criticism.

Labour's foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer said he was pleased today's sentencing meant Ms Billingsley could finally get closure.

He said it had been a lengthy process for her to go through and her comments had been dignified throughout the ordeal.

He also welcomed the long-awaited release of the Whitehead Report but was concerned it would neither address nor call to account shortcomings at a ministerial level.

- NZ Herald

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