A Kiwi facing the firing squad for allegedly smuggling 1.7kg of crystal methamphetamine into Indonesia will use a landmark legal strategy to argue his innocence - and plead for his life.

The fate of Whanganui man Tony de Malmanche, 52, hangs in the balance after he was arrested at Denpasar International Airport in December after travelling to Hong Kong to meet his internet girlfriend, someone purporting to be a businesswoman named "Jesse".

The Herald on Sunday can reveal de Malmanche claims to have been duped by a sophisticated international drug smuggling ring.

And in a legal first de Malmanche's legal team will claim he was a "trafficked person", which they say could have huge implications for other drug traffickers manipulated by criminal cartels.

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His Tauranga-based lawyer Craig Tuck said de Malmanche had a history of mental illness and had spent more than three years in institutional care at a young age.

Explaining for the first time how the ruse transpired, Tuck said de Malmanche had developed a strong Christian faith and was trying to meet someone to share his life with.

He began an "intense" online three-month relationship with Jesse, who bought a passport and plane ticket for de Malmanche to visit her in Hong Kong. It was his first overseas trip.

Tuck said Jesse's "personal assistant", an African man named Larry, helped de Malmanche obtain a passport.

On arriving in Hong Kong, his suitcase had fallen apart.

He was contacted by Larry, who three days later told him to catch a bus to the city of Guangzhou on the Chinese mainland where Jesse would meet him.

Tuck said de Malmanche met Larry for the first time in Guangzhou. He soon became completely dependent on Larry in the "overwhelming" city, the third largest in China. Larry then told him Jesse was having visa problems and would instead meet him in Bali.

He said the men returned to Hong Kong and visited a market, where Larry reportedly bought a bag for de Malmanche and packed it in his luggage.

De Malmanche was arrested and detained by Customs and Police for three days before being paraded before the Indonesian media.

"Police disclosed that Tony was caught as part of an international sting involving a highly organised and sophisticated multinational criminal drug cartel," Tuck said.

He said de Malmanche's legal team would now try to convince the three Indonesian judges at his trial that he was a victim rather than a perpetrator of trafficking.

Tuck said the case had global implications and if successful, could spell a major shift in drug trafficking cases worldwide. The trial is likely to start next February.

Tuck will lead a team including senior Indonesian human rights lawyers and two legal professors. They have hired investigators who are trying to find the cartel's ringleaders, who they believe span Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

There was a stark reminder of the ruthlessness of Indonesian authorities towards drug traffickers this week when an Indonesian judge ruled two Australian men convicted there over the "Bali Nine" drugs case would be executed at the same time.

De Malmanche is one of several New Zealanders facing drug trafficking charges overseas.

Peter Gardner was arrested in China in November allegedly with 30kg of pure methamphetamine in his luggage.