Malaysia vows to send officer to New Zealand to face sexual assault charges after delays

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Malaysian officials said Friday they still plan to send a military officer back to New Zealand to face sexual assault charges despite not returning him in early July as they had promised.

However, the officials also expressed concerns about media coverage of the case in New Zealand and the decision of the alleged victim to speak out.

Muhammad Rizalman Ismail was working at the Malaysian Embassy in Wellington when he was arrested May 9 for allegedly following a 21-year-old woman home and assaulting her. He was charged with burglary and assault with the intent to rape, each of which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

He claimed diplomatic immunity and returned home May 22.

New Zealand officials at first appeared to be upset that Malaysia invoked diplomatic immunity, but later acknowledged they may have given the mistaken impression they didn't oppose such a move.

Malaysia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week responded to some written questions from The Associated Press regarding the case but declined to answer others.

The officials said that on July 2, the Malaysian government made the decision to send Muhammad Rizalman back to New Zealand within days, a plan they conveyed to New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully.

The officials declined to say what had happened since then to delay his trip or when he could be expected to arrive in New Zealand.

However, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key this week acknowledged that one of the reasons for the delay was that the officer had been undergoing mental health tests. "There are complicating factors and that is one of them," he told reporters.

Key added that he had recently spoken to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who assured him that Muhammad Rizalman would return to New Zealand.

In response to AP's questions, Malaysian officials said they believed Muhammad Rizalman could still get a fair trial in New Zealand despite the strong public scrutiny of the case there.

"Malaysia is concerned that he should not be tried by the media and the legal principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty should be maintained," they said.

Asked about the decision of alleged victim Tania Billingsley to speak out, Malaysian officials said that anybody involved in a case should not be speaking publicly in way which could prejudice a defendant's right to a fair trial.

Billingsley this month told television network TV3 she thought McCully should resign for mishandling the case and she felt "frustrated" and "angry" that Muhammad Rizalman had been able to leave New Zealand.

McCully has apologized to Billingsley for "the poor management of this case."