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Herald on Sunday Editorial: Diplomat's sentence the final disgrace

Malaysian diplomat Muhammed Rizalman. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Malaysian diplomat Muhammed Rizalman. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The scandal of the Malaysian diplomat, first disclosed by this newspaper, gets worse at every turn. Initially given diplomatic immunity, he was returned to New Zealand to face trial but tried to get the case thrown out of court on account of the publicity. Failing to evade the charge in that way too, Muhammad Rizalman pleaded guilty to indecent assault and has been sentenced to nine months' home detention.

A sentence so soft is an insult to his victim, Tania Billingsley, who has waived her right to name suppression so that she can express her feelings publicly. Which she has done. On TV3's 3rd Degree she accused New Zealand society of trivialising and condoning rape and sexual violence.

She was in her bedroom when Rizalman entered her house, naked from the waist down. The court was told a struggle ensued in which he grabbed her shoulders "to calm her down". If this home invasion falls short of rape, it would have been just as terrifying for the woman when he entered the room and approached her.

It is hard to disagree with her that a sentence so light trivialises the trauma that a woman in this situation would suffer.

As if Rizalman's intrusion was not offensive enough, the Crown alleged he first defecated on her patio in some sort of black magic ritual he believed would put her under his spell. That is bizarre behaviour for anyone, let alone a diplomat thought capable of representing his country. He is a disgrace to Malaysia which, to its credit, returned him for trial. It now has to rent a house in which he can serve his lenient sentence.

At the end of it he will be deported and his 21-year military career will end in a dishonourable discharge. Enough of him, the question of more concern to New Zealand is how and why was he given diplomatic immunity in the first instance by someone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade?

The report of an inquiry into that decision was completed more than a year ago but became available only after the conclusion of criminal proceedings. It has found the immunity was "given" in a single email, "designed to be helpful to Malaysian understanding of the situation, but which nevertheless was ambiguous enough to provide scope for the Malaysian authorities to misunderstand the intentions of the New Zealand Government".

The investigator, former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead, thinks the message might have been different if others had been copied into the email, particularly the Minister, Murray McCully. We wonder. Diplomatic immunity is well entrenched in their ranks. This case has been a disgrace from beginning to end.

- Herald on Sunday

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