ASEAN Beat | Politics | Society | Southeast Asia

Drug Trafficker Case Another Test for Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan Government

A new case will spotlight Malaysia’s approach to the death penalty at home as well as its ties with Australia and Western countries more generally.

Luke Hunt
Drug Trafficker Case Another Test for Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan Government

Australian Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, center, is escorted by a police officer during a court hearing at Shah Alam High Court in Shah Alam, Malaysia, Dec. 27, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Sadiq Asyraf

The final appeal of convicted Australian drug trafficker and death row inmate Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto has the potential to sorely test Malaysia’s relations with Canberra when it is heard in the Federal Appeal Court next Tuesday.

The Sydney grandmother was caught with 1.5 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine while transiting through Kuala Lumpur International Airport almost five years ago, far in excess of the 50 grams (1.75 ounces) of crystal meth, or ice, that defines trafficking.

Yet her case has won widespread sympathy after a lower court initially found Exposto not guilty. It has also raised intense legal interest given legal changes to the way capital punishment is administered in Malaysia.

A lower court initially ruled in Exposto’s favor, believing her story that she was the victim of an online scam, set up by a man who claimed to be “Captain Daniel Smith,” a U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

“He made me feel loved, he made me feel wanted,” she told the court.

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“Smith” sang to her and sent her dashing photos and poems before urging her to meet him in Shanghai. She obliged, but he failed to show.

Instead, she befriended a stranger who asked her to deliver a backpack filled with clothes to Australia. It also contained packages of meth hidden in the lining of the bag.

The initial verdict was appealed by prosecutors who argued Exposto was willfully blind and had played a “sly game.” She was subsequently convicted early last year and sentenced to hang.

Her trial is reminiscent of the long-running trials of Australian drug runners Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, who were hanged in 1986, souring relations between Australia and Malaysia and its Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad.

They were condemned after stiff narcotic penalties were introduced across Southeast Asia, largely at the behest of the United States and its efforts to curb heroine and opium smuggling out of the infamous Golden Triangle in the 1970s and 1980s.

Barlow and Chambers were the first Westerners to hang in Malaysia, and their trial provoked widespread criticism of Mahathir, who countered that drug laws should apply to all and accused Western countries of hypocrisy.

More than 30 years later, Mahathir is again prime minister and Malaysia’s use of the ultimate penalty has been moving toward change since his government announced last year the mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking would be abolished. But the veteran politician had underestimated public support for the death penalty, and a backslide followed. Executions will now be decided solely at the discretion of judges and not mandated by legislation.

“I disagree with the death penalty, but there’s a lot of Malaysians who still see it as relevant. To drop it altogether might be a bit much for the electorate. Still this is really a big jump forward,” Mahathir’s deputy minister, Hanipa Maidin, told parliament regarding the change.

Use of the death penalty is currently suspended, and legislation to support the changes is pending. Exposto’s lawyer, Muhammad Farhan Shafee, described her conviction as “perverse” and has said he was confident his client would receive a full acquittal on appeal.

But even if she loses, the court might spare her the noose and impose a jail term or they could suspend sentencing until the legislative amendments are made to the law, which could set legal precedents for more than 1,000 people currently on death row in Malaysia.

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Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt