Email blamed for Malaysian diplomat botch-up

Email blamed for Malaysian diplomat botch-up

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says a report into the mishandling of a sexual assault case against a Malaysian diplomat paints a picture of "serious failure on a serious matter".

A report into how Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail was able to leave New Zealand following serious charges has been made public today, with a single email from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade at the heart of the matter.

Rizalman was sentenced to nine months' home detention yesterday after pleading guilty to indecently assaulting Tania Billingsley at her Wellington home in 2014.

Mr McCully saw the report more than a year ago but it couldn't be released because it could prejudice Rizalman's court case.

At the time of the incident he worked at the Malaysian High Commission in Brooklyn and was allowed to leave the country, despite being arrested and charged in relation to Ms Billingsley's case.

It wasn't until the events were made public and there was an outcry in New Zealand that the 39-year-old returned to face justice.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the report stemming from a ministerial inquiry.

The 82-page document has set things out clearly as to how Rizalman was allowed to leave the country pending serious charges.

There were procedural shortcomings, which gave Malaysian officials the impression it would be acceptable for Rizalman to return to Malaysia, the report by former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead says.

When Rizalman's case first emerged in media reports, there appeared to be confusion between statements being made by the Malaysian and New Zealand governments.

The report found that much of this stemmed from an email sent by MFAT to the Malaysian High Commission, and the confusion was not cleared until the two Foreign Ministers held a telephone conversation two days after the case became public.

"The New Zealand Foreign Minister was able to explain to his counterpart that the email had just come into his possession and it looked like it was the genesis of the apparent ambiguity in the New Zealand position as conveyed to Malaysia," the report says.

The staffer who sent the email no longer works at the ministry.

The report contains 21 recommendations to make sure an event like this doesn't happen again.

Mr McCully said he accepts the recommendations and all have been implemented by the ministry.

"This is a very serious matter and very disappointing the Foreign Ministry has found itself in this position.

"Someone responsible for a very serious criminal offence would have escaped the New Zealand courts had it not been for the actions of the Malaysian government and that's obviously something we deeply regret," he says.

"We had the New Zealand government believe it was saying one thing to the Malaysian government when in fact its offices were saying something different or more ambiguous and we can't do business that way."

When asked at media conference whether he took responsibility for the debacle, Mr McCully said:

'Of course ministers need to take responsibility for shortcomings and for fixing systematic problems".

While the report pointed to that single email, it was also the case that were wasn't a system of checks and balances in place which "would have identified these shortcomings".

Mr McCully and Prime Minister John Key were interviewed for the report. Mr McCully says his actions were "very clearly reported" with clear finding of who knew what and when.

Green Party spokeswomen for women Jan Logie says the handling of the case shows a "failure" of government ministers to show leadership on sexual violence.

She says the report only looks at the ministry's involvement and glances over Mr McCully's actions.

"The report clearly shows there was no attempt made by Mr McCully, the Prime Minister or Police Minister Anne Tolley to keep an eye on what was happening with the Rizalman case.

"By excluding themselves from the investigation, they further perpetuated their lack of political leadership on this issue," she says.

She believes the Government not only failed Ms Billingsley, but also to provide the leadership New Zealanders expect.

A wider enquiry is needed into the actions of the ministers, not just ministry staff, she says.

Ministerial Enquiry Whitehead Report