KUALA LUMPUR, July 14 — Malaysia has the option of taking back Muhammad Rizalman Ismail even if the junior envoy is found guilty by a New Zealand court of burglary and attempted rape, according to a report in a Kiwi paper.
Citing Stephen Hoadley, associate professor of political studies at Auckland University, the New Zealand Herald reported yesterday that the Malaysian military aide, however, is most likely to serve out his sentence in the Pacific country if convicted.
But of urgent concern for all sides in the case that threatened to unravel Malaysia-New Zealand ties is whether or not Muhammad Rizalman will be given a fair trial in light of the media attention in both countries.
Citing Peter Williams, a Queens Counsel, the New Zealand Herald reported that it was possible for the defence to apply to strike out the charges against the 38-year-old former staff assistant at the Malaysian High Commission in Wellington, on the grounds that media coverage could prejudice his right to a fair trial.
“Such an application is very difficult. It is very seldom that an indictment is struck out on the grounds of there having been a lot of publicity but it would be worth a go,” Williams was quoted saying.
If the application is rejected, Muhammad Rizalman will have to face the due process of New Zealand law and stand trial before a judge and 12 jurors, unlike in Malaysia, which no longer has a jury system.
A judge-alone trial was possible but unlikely, according to Williams, who said, “Usually, there are two sides to be considered and you need the common sense of a judge.”
Muhammad Rizalman was arrested by Kiwi police on May 9 on allegations of burglary and attempted sexual assault on 21-year-old Tania Billingsley.
He was charged in a New Zealand court the next day for burglary and assault with intent to commit rape, with both charges carrying the maximum penalty of a 10-year jail term.
The junior envoy has since returned to Malaysia after invoking diplomatic immunity and is currently under medical scrutiny at a military hospital here.
The manner of his exit from New Zealand was earlier the cause of an embarrassing exchange between the two countries, although Wellington later admitted its officials were responsible for the ambiguity that led Malaysia to believe it could recall him.
Last Wednesday, Billingsley revealed herself as the woman at the centre of the sex case that had nearly unravelled New Zealand-Malaysia ties.
She said she chose to forego court protection of her identity because she was “frustrated” and “angry” with her country’s leaders for their lackadaisical response to her alleged assault.
Muhammad Rizalman had been due to be sent back to New Zealand to face charges of burglary and attempted rape on Monday, but this was delayed after a psychiatric examination found him to be depressed and withdrawn.
He is expected to undergo another round of tests to evaluate his fitness to travel.
Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein previously conveyed Malaysia’s commitment to send the warrant officer back to stand trial in New Zealand, while repeating caution against a trial by media.
But Armed Forces chief General Tan Sri Zulkefli Mohd Zin also said Muhammad Rizalman will return to New Zealand only “when appropriate.”