PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AP) — An Australian woman escaped the death penalty and was released Tuesday after Malaysia’s top court acquitted her of drug trafficking, a rare ruling that could bolster calls for an end to capital punishment in the country.
Defense lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah said the Federal Court unanimously overturned Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto’s conviction by an appellate court and ruled she could walk free after a five-year legal battle.
“The judges said this is not a case safe enough for them to declare a conviction ... because there is so much dissatisfaction over the features and the evidence that have been presented,” he told reporters.
Exposto, a 55-year-old mother of four from Sydney and also a grandmother, was taken into immigration custody because her visa had expired but was released later Tuesday and was expected to fly home soon.
“I’m thrilled. I’m very happy because I can go home to my family,” she told reporters, saying she had expected an acquittal because she had faith in her lawyers.
Asked what she would do first, Exposto laughed and said, “I’m going out to eat a steak and drink some wine because those five years I did not have any.”
She was convicted by the Court of Appeal last year of having 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of crystal methamphetamine in her bag when she was arrested in December 2014 at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. The appellate court had overturned her acquittal by the High Court in 2017 following an appeal by prosecutors. The Federal Court’s decision is final.
Exposto has said she went to Shanghai to meet a U.S. serviceman with whom she had an online romance but he never turned up. She said she befriended a stranger and was asked to carry a bag full of clothes but was unaware that drugs were concealed inside. She was detained while catching a connecting flight to Melbourne.
Malaysia has a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of carrying more than 50 grams of a prohibited drug. Three Australians have been hanged for drug offenses in Malaysia since 1986.
Shafee said Exposto’s acquittal could “open the eyes” of traditionally conservative judges hearing similar cases of drug mules after Malaysia’s top court agreed that she was the unwitting victim of an internet romance scam.
He said it would bolster a campaign for an end to mandatory death sentences.
“Judges are only human. They can make errors and someone can get hanged, so it's better to remove the death sentence and give a chance for others who may be equally innocent,” he said.
Malaysia’ government earlier this year backtracked on plans to abolish capital punishment, which mandates hanging as punishment for a wide range of crimes, following public objections.
Amnesty International says 73% of about 1,300 people on death row in Malaysia were convicted of drug offenses, including 566 foreigners.