The more that emerges in the story we broke last Sunday the more disturbing it becomes that diplomatic immunity should be so badly handled. Both Foreign Minister Murray McCully and the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade say they knew nothing of the incident until the Herald on Sunday approached the minister. If that is so, he and the ministry chief, John Allen, need to get a better grip on the organisation.

When a foreign diplomat is accused of a crime and claims immunity from prosecution, the issue should not be dealt with on a protocol desk and concluded as quietly as possible. It is a matter of public interest. In fact, the public interest is going to be greater than in most of the work the ministry chooses to tell us about. As a representative of another country, the accused person and the disgraced country should be known.

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Immunity may mean a person escapes criminal punishment, it should not mean he or she is sheltered from the shame of public exposure. Yet that is exactly what happened until we reported last Sunday that a diplomat accused of a sexual crime had been expelled several weeks earlier. It took legal action by our news organisation and other media before his name and his country could be published.


At that point the incident went from bad to worse. McCully insisted the ministry had asked Malaysia to waive immunity so Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail could be tried in this country. Malaysia's foreign minister, Anifah Aman, said New Zealand had wanted him out. McCully released letters to show Aman was wrong. Too late, McCully learned his officials were putting one message on paper but giving a different message to the Malaysians face to face.

That sort of duplicity might be diplomatic but it is not acceptable. Who was the ministry's formal letter intended to deceive? The minister? The prime minister? The public? All could be forgiven for taking the letter at face value. It expressed the only proper position for a country that means to punish crimes against a citizen.

The unnamed officials who gave their Malaysian counterparts a different message were not thinking of the woman who had complained to the police and has a right to see justice done. What were they thinking? The Herald has unearthed four comparable cases in the past four years. When diplomats offend, it seems, they look after each other.

McCully needs to change that culture and gain his officials' confidence. This mess suggests something is seriously wrong in the ranks of those who represent our interests and values to the world. And it is not over yet.