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Malaysia to send official back to New Zealand to face sex assault charge

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - A Malaysian military official who is being sent back to New Zealand to face sexual assault and burglary charges will no longer be protected by diplomatic immunity, New Zealand officials confirmed Thursday.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully said in an email that his Malaysian counterpart had told him Malaysia was now willing to waive the man's right to immunity, after invoking it in May to bring him home. McCully said a date hasn't been finalized for the military official to return, although it's likely to be "days, not weeks."

Without diplomatic protection, the official faces immediate arrest upon his arrival in New Zealand after a court earlier issued a warrant for his arrest.

The official was working at Malaysia's embassy in Wellington when he was detained on May 9. He claimed diplomatic immunity and returned home on May 22.

Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Second Warrant Officer Muhammad Rizalman Ismail will return to Wellington "to assist in the investigation" there.

It said Foreign Minister Anifah Aman conveyed the decision to New Zealand, and that Malaysia has "complete faith in the New Zealand legal system."

McCully welcomed the announcement.

"I want to convey my thanks to the Malaysian government for this very welcome development which underlines the good faith and integrity with which they have approached this issue," he said in a statement.

"It must be noted that the accused has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and deserves the right to a fair trial," he said.

Anifah said Muhammad Rizalman had worked at the Malaysian High Commission in Wellington for the past year as a defence staff assistant when he was detained for allegedly following a 21-year-old woman home and assaulting her. He was charged with burglary and assault with the intent to rape, each of which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said after the official returned home that it was New Zealand's "very strong preference" the man face trial in New Zealand.

Officials from both countries said the man was not being formally extradited.

The 1961 Vienna Convention spells out the special protections afforded to diplomats and their embassy staff. Diplomats enjoy full immunity from local laws; staff are immune from criminal prosecution but not from certain civil matters.

The home country can choose to waive immunity in any particular case, and diplomats and their staff can face legal sanctions when they return home.

The United Nations says the convention reflects practice from the earliest historical times, when an envoy was assured safe passage in order to negotiate a truce or settle a squabble. These days, the UN says, the protections allow embassies to act without fear of local harassment or coercion.

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