The Malaysian government’s decision to extradite to New Zealand, Muhammad Rizalman Ismail, a Malaysian diplomatic attaché who was charged on May 10 in a Wellington District Court in New Zealand with burglary and assault with intent to commit rape on a 21-year-old woman, is welcomed.
It was of great concern to many that instead of being made to stand trial, Rizalman was flown back to Malaysia on May 22 under the protection of diplomatic immunity despite the seriousness of the alleged crime.
The actions taken by our government in requesting the sealing of all documentation pertaining to the case and withdrawal of all charges against Rizalman as well as the decision not to waive diplomatic immunity, did not bode well for the government’s standing not only in the eyes of its citizens but also in the international arena.
The use of diplomatic immunity at that point effectively enabled the accused to evade a criminal justice process where he would have been made to account for his alleged actions.
By allowing this, the Malaysian government was in breach of General Recommendation 28 of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Malaysia is a signatory. CEDAW states that our government has a duty, among other things, to bring perpetrators of violence against women to trial and to impose punishment.
The Defence Minister and the Foreign Minister had earlier assured Malaysians that justice would prevail and that Rizalman would face a Board of Inquiry set up by the Defence Ministry. If the accusations were found to be true, he would be court-martialled in Malaysia.
However, many Malaysians were left wondering as to how a Board of Inquiry could be used to investigate a serious criminal offence, that is, attempted rape.
It has raised a fundamental question of the government’s approach towards investigating sexual crimes.
Furthermore, it is unclear how an investigation into the alleged crime could properly take place given that the victim and investigating officers were in New Zealand.
Up until yesterday, more than a month after Rizalman’s return, the status of investigation in Malaysia was as yet unknown.
The Malaysian government must act to fulfil both local and international commitments towards ending violence against women.
There is an urgent need to stand resolute in rejecting sexual violence, irrespective of whether such violence occurs on Malaysian soil or is committed by a Malaysian abroad.
As such, the decision taken to send Rizalman back to New Zealand to stand trial is the appropriate step to take.
Prema Devaraj is a member of Women’s Centre for Change, Penang.