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Woman at centre of Malaysian diplomat case speaks out

Wednesday 9 Jul 2014 3:52 p.m.

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The woman at the centre of the Malaysian diplomat case has spoken out about what she feels is a mishandling of the case and a symptomatic breakdown in how New Zealand treats victims of sexual violence.

Tania Billingsley, 22, has voluntarily had her name suppression lifted so she could share her thoughts on the case with media.

Sexual assault-accused Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail was a staff assistant for defence at the Malaysia High Commission in Brooklyn, Wellington, and is understood to hold a military rank of second warrant office.

He was arrested on May 9 and charged with burglary and assault with intent to rape after allegedly following Ms Billingsley home.

"I guess that I'm someone who has something to say about this assault," says Ms Billingsley. "It happened to me and throughout this whole process, especially once it's become so public, my voice hasn't been heard. And I do, obviously, have a lot to say about this. I'm not just a bystander."

There can be no more important voice, but it's been one lost amongst the noise. So much has been written, aired, discussed, surmised about this case, but it's all at such an impersonal level. Nowhere have you heard the woman at the centre of it all.

She has made a considered decision. She wants you to know who she is and she wants you to know her story.

"Because I'm hoping that in revealing who I am and having a face to put to this alleged victim that I'll be able to help address some of the issues around sexual violence in this country."

But speaking out is not as straightforward as you might think. Complainants in sex attacks, for good reason, are granted automatic name suppression. Ms Billingsley – with her lawyer – had to apply to the courts to have that protection lifted so she could talk.

"In making myself too public I am making myself quite vulnerable to people who see this differently than me and also just being so visible is quite a scary thing."

Beginning with the May 9 attack, Rizalman was arrested and appeared in court the next day, charged with burglary and attempted rape.

Ms Billingsley says she first became aware of Rizalman's diplomatic status on May 11, which is also her birthday.

"So I spent the morning of it in the police station being told that he was a diplomat," she says.

Official meetings followed and just two weeks later a diplomatic escape route was taken – Rizalman left New Zealand.

"I found out that he was going to leave the day that he left. Up until then the police had been really great at keeping me informed, but even they didn't know what to tell me.

"I got this call and it was like, 'Yeah, you know we just found out that he's leaving today.'

"Obviously I was frustrated and I was angry because I had from the very beginning said that I wanted him to stay in New Zealand and be held accountable here."

Her wishes, though, counted for nothing, and Rizalman's controversial departure was kept quiet.

"[It was] as though what happened to me is just backdrop to the political drama instead of a really real and traumatic experience. Of course it's that thing of it's only become a real issue when it started to inconvenience them."

What transpired is Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was briefed when the charges were laid and did nothing.

"It's just not appropriate for ministers to get involved too closely in this process," says Mr McCully.

But Ms Billingsley is upset the minister, in his weekly meetings with officials in those seven weeks before this became public, didn't ask them about the case.

"Clearly he doesn't know how to do his job properly," says Ms Billingsley. "He obviously doesn't take sexual assault as a serious thing to consider.

"I've heard that I have a formal apology on the way, but really the only apologies that I've heard have been them saying in the media that we have apologised."

She says she wants more than just an apology.

"I would take them actually committing to address rape culture and to being just more engaged in this stuff as an apology instead; if they want to swap an apology for them starting to deal with this stuff then I'm okay with that."

But if an apology is to come, whom does she want it from?

"McCully, I would like an apology from him, not just for what I feel is a really incompetent handling of the situation, but in his reaction, like the fact that even when asked directly about me and things like that, that he just brushed it off. He was so intent on trying to put responsibility and blame on everybody else that I just feel like he wasn't actually addressing and putting energy towards fixing what had happened. Obviously it was painful for me to watch that, seeing someone be so dismissive of something that's been so traumatic to me, but it is also embarrassing watching a grown man trying to put blame and talk his way out of what effectively is failure at his own job."

She says Mr McCully should resign.

Addressing a culture of violence

Ms Billingsley's quest for accountability doesn't stop with the Foreign Minister. She's outraged too at what she feels is dismissiveness of her case, from the very top.

"I just remember the first, the very first, thing I watched on it, and just seeing him looking bored and annoyed at having to be talking about it and just saying there's nothing that we can do pretty much. 'Oh it sucks but it is what it is.' And that's what I was getting. I don't feel from him any sincerity in his concern for me."

Her friends get it, both in terms of what happened and what the fallout represents. It's something that has been driving her activism since long before all this. Spend time with Ms Billingsley and her friends and you'll see they're part of a growing global conversation about rape culture.

"[Rape culture] is a society and culture within it that normalises and trivialises and, even in subtle and obvious ways, condones rape and sexual violence.

"I think quite clearly from the beginning the fact that as the person who has had to deal with this and who has from the beginning, I've had very definite views about what I've wanted and how I felt about this and it hasn't been listened to.

"The police have been good and they've definitely acknowledged in respect of where I'm coming from, but at a higher level there's been no attempt to really honour what I want.

"I just really think that we as a country, and especially the Government, needs to start not just reacting to sexual assault but working to prevent it."

No longer does she feel comfortable walking the streets of Wellington at night. Ms Billingsley can't talk about the man accused of her attack; the legal process has still to play out.

But already she has a capacity for thinking beyond herself, about victims of sexual violence. But her compassion extends also to the family of Rizalman.

"They're also victims in what has happened and I can't even imagine how hard the last couple of months have been for them. They're probably not watching this but I hope the message gets back to them that I'm thinking about them as well and hope they're being supported where they are because I think that people aren't really acknowledging that this has probably been horrible and life-changing for them as well as me."

3rd Degree approached Foreign Minister Murray McCully for an interview, but he declined, saying:  "I have publicly apologised to the young woman whose distress has been aggravated by the poor management of this case. The terms for a full inquiry into the matter are being finalised. I do not wish to compromise either the inquiry or any criminal proceedings by commenting further."

We also asked Prime Minister John Key and he also declined, with his office saying: "We will decline your request for the Prime Minister to appear on the programme. The legal implications of any pending court case precludes an appearance."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs chief executive, John Allen, sent us this statement: "I deeply regret the distress caused to the woman at the centre of this incident. I have apologised to her publicly and by letter. In dealing with this issue the Ministry fell short of the standards expected of us. Our focus now is on performing the rest of our role in this matter to a high standard and on learning from the lessons that come out of the independent inquiry."
(The letter was given to Ms Billingsley a few hours before 3rd Degree went to air)

If you need support or help with regards to any of the issues raised in this story, these are some of the services that are available:


  • Reporter: Paula Penfold
  • Producer: Eugene Bingham
  • Camera: George Murahidy, Belinda Walshe
  • Editor: Toby Longbottom

3rd Degree

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