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Australian woman escapes death sentence for drug trafficking in Malaysia

Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto
Judge accepts Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto had no knowledge of drugs in her bag in verdict on charge that carries a mandatory death sentence

An Australian woman has been found not guilty of drug trafficking in Malaysia, a charge that carries a mandatory death sentence.

On Wednesday afternoon a Malaysian judge found that Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto did not know that there were drugs in her bag when customs officials found 1.1kg of ice – a potent form of methamphetamine – in her luggage at Kuala Lumpur airport in December 2014.

Exposto’s lawyer, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, said the judge was convinced of her innocence after hearing his client did not try to bypass searches at the airport.

“The judge described her as naive, not merely innocent but naive,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

After the hearing the judge ordered Exposto’s deportation from Malaysia, and she is currently being held in immigration detention.

However the prosecution has indicated that it will appeal the decision, meaning that she is unlikely to be able to leave the country in the near future.

Instead, Exposto’s lawyers have said that once an appeal is lodged they will file a bail application so that she can leave custody but remain in the country.

Earlier Exposto’s lawyers had said their client would have been given a mandatory sentence of death by hanging if she was found guilty in the Malaysian high court.

A 54-year-old grandmother and mother of four from Sydney, Exposto was arrested in December 2014 at Kuala Lumpur airport en route from Shanghai to Australia.

But her lawyers argued Exposto was the victim of an online romance scam and believed she was in Shanghai to collect documents for her online boyfriend’s retirement from service in the US army to take to an embassy in Australia.

Farhan Shafee, one of Exposto’s lawyers, said his client was the “victim of an internet romance scam”, most likely from west Africa.

“When she was in Australia, Maria developed an online relationship with someone who she thought and perceived to be a captain in US army, stationed in Afghanistan,” Shafee told the Guardian.

“This relationship developed for [about] a year, and during that time she’d given money to this online presence, believing that once he was discharged from the military they would be united and live happy ever after together in Australia.”

Exposto said that before leaving Shanghai she was handed the bag containing the drugs by a friend of her online boyfriend’s and only saw clothes inside. But customs officials noticed an item inside that appeared “green” during scans of Exposto’s belongings at Kuala Lumpur airport.

Upon closer inspection, they found odd pink and brown stitching at the back of the backpack.

When they opened the stitching, grey packages were inside, customs official Mohd Noor Nashariq told the Shah Alam high court last year.

Exposto’s lawyers said her behaviour before the arrest suggested she was “a victim” rather than a trafficker.

Despite being able to remain in the transit area of the airport before her connecting flight to Australia, Exposto unnecessarily passed through customs and willingly approached officials to have her bags checked.

“Unlike in Australia, in Malaysia customs doesn’t check everyone, so they would do a random selection as you pass through. But Maria voluntarily went and put her bag on the x-ray machine,” Shafee said.

Malaysia has a mandatory death penalty by hanging for anyone found guilty of carrying more than 50 grams of a drug.

In August the Malaysian government agreed to scrap the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers by giving judges the discretion to give a life sentence in prison.

However the change is yet to be ratified, and Exposto’s lawyers warned she faced a mandatory death sentence if convicted.

Three Australian nationals have been executed by the state: Michael McAuliffe in 1993, and Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in 1986.

Source: The Guardian, Michael McGowan, December 27, 2017


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