Convicted Australian drug trafficker Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto could still face the hangman after Malaysia stepped back from plans to abolish the death penalty and instead leave capital punishment to the discretion of the courts.
The Sydney grandmother has won widespread sympathy after a court in Kuala Lumpur heard how she was set up through an online boyfriend scam.
Her lawyer, Muhammad Farhan Shafee, said he was “neither disappointed or surprised as (the decision) was expected” adding he remained confident Exposto would receive a full acquittal on appeal before the Federal Court.
“However, taking the worst case scenario into consideration where in the event she is found guilty, the court by the time her final appeal is heard may be empowered to hand down a life sentence instead,” he said.
“This is based on recent moves to change this area of law in both the courts and legislature.”
Initially, Exposto was acquitted of trafficking 1.5kg of methamphetamine into Malaysia, but faced a prosecution appeal and was subsequently found guilty last May and sentenced to death.
The prosecution in Exposto’s appeal argued she had been wilfully blind, said her defence was simply made up and that she had engaged in a “sly game”.
Her lawyers argued Exposto was an innocent carrier hoodwinked by an internet romance scam.
A bench of three judges noted the ultimate penalty was mandatory for drug trafficking but added she had the right to appeal and wished her luck.
“The only option was to impose the death penalty,” Shafee said.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was internationally praised by humanitarian groups after his government announced in October the death penalty would be abolished.
But smiles turned to disappointment on Wednesday when Mahathir’s deputy minister, Hanipa Maidin, told parliament of the change.
Shafee said the mandatory death penalty was also being challenged in the Federal Court but added there was still widespread support for executions in Malaysia.
“I disagree with the death penalty, but there’s a lot of Malaysians who still see it as relevant. To drop it altogether might be a bit much for the electorate. Still this is really a big jump forward,” he said.
There are also ramifications for Sirul Azhar Umar, a policeman who fled to Australia before being sentenced to death by a Malaysian court for the 2006 murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu.
Under Australian law, Sirul can only be deported if he does not face the death penalty and following the initial announcement that it would be abolished he was told he could be deported after failing to win political asylum in Australia.
A date is yet to be fixed for Exposto’s Federal Court hearing.