Malaysia charges Australian mother of four with drug trafficking

SEPANG, Malaysia (AFP) - An Australian mother of four was charged in Malaysia with the capital crime of drug trafficking on Friday, but her lawyers insisted she was innocently duped into carrying a bag that appeared to contain only clothing.

Customs officers hauled Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto into a court outside the capital Kuala Lumpur in handcuffs and with a coat covering her head, ignoring questions from a pack of mostly Australian journalists.

Inside the court she was charged - just a day before her 52nd birthday, according to her lawyers - with drug trafficking, which brings a mandatory penalty of death by hanging upon conviction in Muslim-majority Malaysia. A plea, however, is not expected until early next year as the case makes its way to a higher court.

Exposto, an Australian citizen since 1985 who hails from East Timor, was arrested on Dec 7 after arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport en route from Shanghai to Melbourne.

A routine customs check had discovered a hidden compartment in a bag she carried, which contained 1.5kg of crystal methamphetamine, or "ice".

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, her Malaysian lawyer Shafee Abdullah said Exposto had told her attorneys: "I am innocent, I didn't know that there were drugs in the bag."

Exposto maintains she was given the suspect bag by a stranger in Shanghai who had asked her to take it Melbourne, Mr Shafee said.

He said Exposto had voluntarily offered her bags for customs inspection as she attempted to enter Malaysia, having gone through immigration mistakenly, unfamiliar with the airport.

"We have a more than 50 per cent chance of getting her acquitted because someone gave her the bag to carry and the drugs were concealed in a stitched compartment," he said.

He added that defence lawyers had not yet been granted full access to Exposto to go over her alibi.

Dressed in light blue denim overalls, Exposto appeared calm during the brief court appearance.

A plea was not entered, as the court does not have jurisdiction over death-penalty cases. Another hearing at the same court was set for Jan 23, when a chemist's report on the suspected drugs will be submitted.

Anyone with at least 50g of "ice" is considered a trafficker in Malaysia, and subject to the death penalty.

Hundreds of Malaysians and foreigners are on death row, many for drug-related offences, though few have been executed in recent years.

Two Australians were hanged in 1986 for heroin trafficking - the first Westerners executed in Malaysia - in a case that strained bilateral relations.

Last year, Dominic Bird, a truck driver from Perth, was acquitted on drug trafficking charges after he was allegedly caught with 167g of crystal methamphetamine.