KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Malaysia said Tuesday it will take stern action against a junior military official if he is found guilty of sexually assaulting a woman in New Zealand where he was working at the country's diplomatic mission.
Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters that a defence ministry panel will investigate Second Warrant Office Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail, 38, who was charged in New Zealand's capital Wellington last month but evaded trial by using diplomatic immunity. He returned home on May 22.
"Diplomatic immunity is not a license for them to commit crime," Anifah said. It was not immediately clear what punishment he faced under Malaysia's military rules.
However, the defence ministry "will not hesitate to take stern action against the accused ... if it is proven beyond reasonable doubt that he is responsible and committed the alleged misconduct," he said.
Anifah said Muhammad Rizalman worked at the Malaysian High Commission in Wellington for the past year as a defence staff assistant when he was detained on May 9 for allegedly following a 21-year-old woman home and assaulting her.
He was charged the next day with burglary and assault with the intent to rape, each of which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. He returned home with his family on May 22.
Anifah said the accused will be sent back to New Zealand "if it is absolutely necessary." Asked to elaborate, Anifah said, "I will consider sending him back" if New Zealand thinks that the Malaysian investigation is not being conducted properly and requests his extradition.
Both Malaysia and New Zealand claim the other country was primarily responsible for initiating the man's return.
Anifah said that, at first, Malaysia was willing to waive diplomatic immunity so that he could be tried in New Zealand. "But during discussions on May 12, the New Zealand side offered an alternative for the accused to be brought back to Malaysia," he said. "It was never our intention to treat the matter lightly."
New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key this week said his government would have preferred to keep the man in New Zealand and try him there, but that Malaysia "stopped us from doing that by invoking diplomatic immunity."
Documents released by New Zealand indicate its officials asked their Malaysian counterparts to waive immunity in a May 10 note, which Malaysia declined in a May 21 response.
New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully acknowledged Tuesday, however, there were "informal communications over what is a complex case" which he said "would have been ambiguous to the Malaysian government."
Anifah said bilateral ties will not be hurt because Malaysia is co-operating closely with New Zealand.
He said the accused was sent for medical checkup after his return. "His physical state is satisfactory. However he is now under psychiatric evaluation to assess his mental and emotional condition," said Anifah.
The defence ministry has established a board of inquiry to investigate the case thoroughly and has given an assurance that "it will not compromise or conceal any facts on the case being fully aware that Malaysia's good name is at stake," he said. "The Malaysian government acknowledges that the incident is a serious matter and we do not have any intention to sweep the matter under the carpet."
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.
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