SHAH ALAM (AFP) - An Australian grandmother who said she was tricked into carrying drugs into Malaysia after falling for an online romance scam was on Wednesday (Dec 27) 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 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 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 Muslim-majority Malaysia, and death by hanging is mandatory in the case of a conviction.
However handing down his verdict at the High Court in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, Judge Ghazali Cha accepted the defence's argument that Ms Exposto did not know the bag contained drugs and acquitted her.
"I agree with the defence lawyer that the accused did not have knowledge about the drugs," he said. "I believe that at that time her (Ms Exposto) feelings of love towards 'Captain Daniel Smith' overcame everything, including her own husband, her family and her future."
Ms Exposto's lawyer 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.
There are at least 900 people on death row in Malaysia, officials have said, but executions have been rare in recent years.
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.
Two Australians were hanged in Malaysia in 1986 for heroin trafficking - the first Westerners to be executed in the country - in a case that strained relations.
In 2013 Dominic Bird, a former truck driver from Perth, was acquitted of drug trafficking charges after he was allegedly caught with 167g of crystal methamphetamine.