The Big Read: The case of disgraced diplomat Muhammad Rizalman

By Jimmy Ellingham

Former Malaysian High Commission worker Muhammad Rizalman has seldom been out of the spotlight since sensational revelations he had returned home under the cloak of diplomatic immunity after being charged with indecent assault. Jimmy Ellingham looks back on a case that took a bizarre turn amid allegations of black magic and spell-binding defecation.

In the normal course of events, the name Muhammad Rizalman Bin Ismail would have remained anonymous, just another worker passing through Wellington's relentless diplomatic treadmill.

He arrived in September 2013 as an assistant to the Malaysian High Commission's defence attache.

A 20-year veteran of the military, Rizalman has a son and two daughters. His military disciplinary record was clean and he'd never been in trouble with the law.

Until, that is, May 2014, when he was charged with burglary and sexual offending against Wellington woman Tania Billingsley, before a swift trip home.

A month later the Herald on Sunday revealed a diplomatic worker had claimed immunity and left New Zealand.

Malaysia's press quickly reported it was one of their high commission's staff and after media made submissions to the courts, Rizalman's name became public and a diplomatic storm was brewing.

The New Zealand Government says it repeatedly lobbied its Malaysian counter-parts for an immunity waiver, requests that were rebuffed. However, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully later said communications could have led to ambiguity.

Tania Billingsley came forward after Rizalman's name suppression was lifted. Photo / Supplied
Tania Billingsley came forward after Rizalman's name suppression was lifted. Photo / Supplied

In the end, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy chief of protocol Mary Oliver took one for Team NZ Inc.

She had met Malaysian High Commission staff about the developing situation two days after Rizalman was charged.

At that meeting, the Malaysians said, they were offered the chance to return Rizalman home.

"It was never our intention to treat the matter lightly," said Malaysia's Foreign Minister.

Ms Oliver retired and was given a public flea in the ear by Prime Minister John Key, who didn't use her name, but said: "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."

The Prime Minister acknowledged the stress the confusion placed on Ms Billingsley.

A week after Rizalman's name was made public, Ms Billingsley applied for her usually automatic suppression to be lifted and speaks out on TV3's 3rd Degree programme.

"I'm hoping that in revealing who I am and having a face to put to this alleged victim that I'll be able to help address some of the issues around sexual violence in this country," she told the network.

Victim advocate Louise Nicholas reads statement on behalf of Ms Billingsley:

Video

She found out who Rizalman was the day after she was indecently assaulted, but wasn't told he was returning home until it happened.

"I found out he was going to leave the day that he left. Up until then the police had been really great at keeping me informed, but even they didn't know what to tell me," Ms Billingsley said.

"Obviously I was frustrated and I was angry because I had from the very beginning said that I wanted him to stay in New Zealand and be held accountable here."

She called for a formal apology from Mr McCully and demanded his resignation, before hitting out at New Zealand's rape culture.

A formal request was made to extradite Rizalman. He returned to New Zealand in October 2014 and was immediately in a courtroom dock.

MAY 9, 2014

Until an extraordinary hearing about disputed facts late last year, it was known Rizalman had ended up inside Ms Billingsley's then flat in Brooklyn; that the 21-year-old woman had come face to face with him in her bedroom and that he had no pants on.

At the hearing, the bizarre lead-up to that was revealed.

During a struggle Rizalman indecently assaulted Ms Billingsley, something he later accepted was indecent because he was naked from the waist down during the melee. However, he argued he had no sexual motive.

Earlier that morning Rizalman bought a ticket for a movie, and he said he fell asleep while watching it.

Mid-afternoon he bought a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey. It was found in his jacket pocket, but he denied drinking it, saying he hadn't touched alcohol since he was married.

Muhammed Rizalman tries to escape a media scrum in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Muhammed Rizalman tries to escape a media scrum in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He also denied the bottle was a present for a young woman he hoped to befriend but said he had memory blanks.

Shortly before 5pm his cellphone diverted calls to voicemail and over the next five hours his worried wife called 132 times.

About 5.30 he bought pineapple lumps and chips from a Brooklyn supermarket, where Ms Billingsley arrived about 20 minutes later.

She said he stared at her as she arrived and she described Rizalman as "quite creepy".

When she left, Rizalman followed her home at such a distance she didn't notice. He said she'd given him a signal to "follow".

"When I was outside the shop, the girl was giving me signals, the way she looked at me and the way she smiled at me. It was as if she was inviting me over," he said.

"I thought her look indicated that she wanted to befriend me - not intimate or anything like that - just friendship - and that I should follow her somewhere."

Once he arrived at her house, he waited outside in the dark for about 30 to 40 minutes and at some stage defecated on the patio.

The Crown suggested this was an act of witchcraft - an attempt by a man who was possibly under the influence of synthetic cannabis to cast a love spell on Ms Billingsley. But Rizalman said it was an "emergency defecation" and that is why he burst into Ms Billingsley's unlocked house and made his way to the bedroom - he was looking for a bathroom to clean up.

Warrant Officer Mohammed Rizalman in Wellington. Photo / Supplied
Warrant Officer Mohammed Rizalman in Wellington. Photo / Supplied

"Suddenly I had a lower stomach pain. An emergency developed. I had diarrhoea that I had no control over. I quickly took off my trousers and underpants just in time to spontaneously purge myself where I stood outside. I had no time or option to choose otherwise."

Initially he'd waited outside as he was waiting for his invitation to enter, he claimed, but now he had to find a way in as simply leaving didn't occur to him.

"I went into the house because I wanted to clean myself. I didn't have any intention to have [a] sexual relationship with her," Rizalman said.

"I went into the room in desperation because I wanted to ask to use the bathroom.

"I still felt that she wanted to be friends with me and as a friend, I approached the door, I knocked on the door and I asked for permission to go in."

He claimed he didn't have a chance to ask where the bathroom was before an alarmed Ms Billingsley, who was watching a movie on her laptop, tried to get him out. He denied suggestions from the Crown he was half-naked because he was looking for sex.

Ms Billingsley managed to phone the police and her screams alerted neighbours to what was going on.

Rizalman was found at the scene and initially told police he'd met Ms Billingsley at Reading Cinemas, went home with her and they'd shared a meal. However, she'd kicked him out when he ate all her food.

He later retracted that, instead arguing he was stressed and depressed and simply wanted a friendly ear to talk to, hence following Ms Billingsley.

"I only wanted to befriend her and talk about my problems."

NOT HIMSELF

In the lead-up to the incident, Rizalman's moods changed and professional help was sought.

An assessment after he was charged noted an increased interest in women.

He'd also tested positive for traces of cannabis in Malaysia, although a subsequent blood test returned a negative result.

In New Zealand, he's bought "puff super strength" synthetic cannabis, but denied smoking it.

His spending records also showed he'd gone to Mermaids, a popular Wellington strip joint, but he said he wasn't there to ogle at women, rather his intention was "to listen to music and release tension".

Muhammed Rizalman in the dock during a court appearance in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Muhammed Rizalman in the dock during a court appearance in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The day before the indecent assault, a young woman said he followed her. She sought refuge in a shop, but he stared in through the window.

He said he was looking at items in the shop.

Outside, after he'd got into his car, the Crown says he tried to talk to the woman.

"Maybe I needed somebody to talk about the problems," Rizalman said.

And in Cosmic on Cuba, he showed an interest in two female shop workers.

Again, Rizalman said, he only wanted to talk.

He argued he was stressed and suffering a mental illness, but that view wasn't shared by the experts.

Professor of psychiatry Graham Mellsop assessed Rizalman and favoured a Malaysian report that attributed his stay in hospital after his return there to drug use, rather than mental illness.

He said Rizalman had scored highly on what's known as the L-scale, or lie-scale, and the F-scale, the faking scale.

Muhammad Rizalman in the dock of the High Court at Wellington in November 2015. Photo / David White
Muhammad Rizalman in the dock of the High Court at Wellington in November 2015. Photo / David White

"The higher lie-scale score is consistent with their conclusions from other evidence that [Rizalman] did not always tell the truth.

"The higher F-scale score is consistent with the idea that he was exaggerating his symptoms."

His wife reported him as being sleepy, tired and confused.

"I think she was making correct observations to a substantial degree, whether or not it was exaggerated by her anxieties I don't know," Prof Mellsop said about her reports.

"I believe she thought she was telling the truth."

Forensic psychiatrist Dr Justin Barry-Walsh had this to say: "I consider Rizalman was in an abnormal mental state at the time of the offending.

"Contributions to this mental state seem to have been a combination of the stress and pressure he was under at work leading to problems with anxiety and potentially depression and misuse of drugs, presumably cannabinoids."

COURT CASES

Rizalman was to have faced trial on charges of burglary, assault with intent to sexually violate Ms Billingsley and indecent assault.

The day his trial was to begin, with the assistance of an interpreter, Rizalman admitted the indecent assault count.

The Crown offered no evidence on the charge of assault with intent to sexually violate Ms Billingsley, and a charge of burglary was dismissed.

After the extraordinary hearing about disputed facts, Justice David Collins ruled there was a sexual motive to the attack.

Rizalman's lawyer Dr Donald Stevens, QC, has indicated he will apply for a discharge without conviction.

Justice Collins flagged home detention "served under careful supervision in the Malaysian High Commission" as a possible sentence.

Rizalman has been on bail at an address that is suppressed.

TIMELINE

2014

May 9: Rizalman indecently assaults Tania Billingsley

May 10: Charges are laid

May 12: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade staffer meets Malaysian High Commission staff

May 22: Rizalman leaves country and Malaysia asks for police case to be sealed

June 29: Herald on Sunday breaks the story

July 1: Rizalman's name is made public after court lifts suppression

July 9: Ms Billingsley speaks out

October 25: After New Zealand requests his return, Rizalman returns and appears in court

December: Report into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's handling of the matter completed. It has still not been released

2015

November 30: On the day his trial is to begin, Rizalman pleads guilty to indecent assault

December 4 and 11: Hearing about disputed facts in the High Court at Wellington

December 15: Justice Collins decides Rizalman did have a sexual motive when he entered Ms Billingsley's house

2016

February 4: Rizalman is sentenced

- NZ Herald

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