SHAH ALAM • An Australian grandmother who said she was tricked into carrying drugs into Malaysia after falling for an online romance scam was yesterday cleared of trafficking, a crime punishable by death.
Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto wept and hugged her son after being found not guilty of smuggling crystal methamphetamine, a rare outcome in a country where hundreds of people have been sentenced to death for drugs offences in recent years.
"I'm happy now that I'm free," said the 54-year-old, as she was ushered out of the courtroom after the verdict.
But prosecutors have indicated that they want to appeal the acquittal, her lawyer said, meaning Ms Exposto won't be able to go back home yet and there is still a chance she could be sentenced to death.
She was arrested in December 2014 while in transit at Kuala Lumpur airport with 1.1kg of the drug stitched into the compartment of a backpack she was carrying. The mother of four argued she that did not know about the hidden stash of "ice". She said she had been fooled into carrying the bag after travelling to China to see someone she met online called "Captain Daniel Smith", who had claimed to be a US serviceman.
Anyone caught with at least 50g of crystal meth is considered a trafficker in Malaysia, and death by hanging is mandatory in the case of a conviction.
However, handing down his verdict, Judge Ghazali Cha accepted the defence's argument that Ms Exposto did not know the bag contained drugs and acquitted her.
Ms Exposto's lawyer, Mr Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, welcomed the verdict but said he was surprised at prosecutors' intention to appeal as the judge had sided firmly with the defence. Prosecutors have 14 days to lodge the challenge.
After engaging in a long online romance, Ms Exposto had travelled to Shanghai to see "Smith". But she did not succeed in meeting her supposed love interest while there and ended up being given a bag by a stranger, who asked her to take it to Melbourne.
When she arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport to change flights, she mistakenly went through immigration as she was unfamiliar with the airport. She voluntarily offered her bags for Customs inspection and the drugs were discovered.
Malaysian lawmakers voted last year to amend legislation so that capital punishment is no longer mandatory in drug-trafficking cases. But the changes have not yet come into force as they must be passed by the Upper House, meaning that in the case of a conviction in Ms Exposto's case, the judge would have had to impose the death penalty.