CABRAMATTA GRANDMOTHER ACQUITTED | ‘She didn’t know drugs were in her bag’

Acquitted: Cabramatta woman Maria Exposto would have faced execution if she had been found guilty of carrying drugs into Malaysia.
Acquitted: Cabramatta woman Maria Exposto would have faced execution if she had been found guilty of carrying drugs into Malaysia.

Cabramatta mother of four children who was the victim of an online romance scam has been acquitted of drugs charges in Malaysia.

MariaElviraPintoExposto, 54, would have faced execution if found guilty in Malaysia's High Court on Wednesday, despite lawmakers in KualaLumpur voting only weeks ago to give judges discretionary powers in individual cases.

The new law passed in Malaysia's parliament on November 30 would not have saved her because it has not yet been formally gazetted.

Prosecutors told Ms Exposto's lawyers last Wednesday night they’d decided to appeal the acquittal, meaning she won’t be allowed to immediately return to Australia. Earlier prosecutors had asked for her to be deported within days.

Ms Exposto insisted she was duped into flying into Kuala Lumpur's international airport from Shanghai in December 2014 with 1.5 kilos of methamphetamine in her luggage.

Defence lawyers say Ms Exposto was the victim of a sophisticated US military romance scam that has entrapped thousands of people.

She told Malaysia's High Court in September she fell for the scam after building an online relationship with a supposed United States soldier and Afghanistan veteran named "Captain Daniel Smith" who asked her to marry him in 2013.

She said her relationship with her husband was "getting a bit sour" at the time.

Ms Exposto said that she had been lured into carrying a bag from Shanghai to Melbourne – transiting in Kuala Lumpur – which she believed had contained only clothing belonging to a supposed acquaintance of the soldier.

"He [Smith] made me feel loved, he made me feel wanted," she said. "[He] would sing to me a few times a day and send poems.”

The scam involved the supposed soldier sending her photos .

Defence lawyer Shafee Abdullah told reporters Ms Exposto believed she had a close relationship with the fictional Smith. "There are probably thousands, mostly women, conned in similar situations," he said.

Ms Exposto arrived in court last Wednesday, having lost weight during more than two years in a Kuala Lumpur jail. She smiled and chatted with lawyers before the verdict was delivered.

ROMANCE SCAM: Maria Exposto (centre) is escorted by a police officer during her court hearing in Malaysia. Pictures: Sadiq Asyraf

ROMANCE SCAM: Maria Exposto (centre) is escorted by a police officer during her court hearing in Malaysia. Pictures: Sadiq Asyraf

The judge found Ms Exposto had no knowledge of the drugs in the bag, rejecting a prosecution submission that her story about the love scam was an afterthought. The judge believed Ms Exposto's love for the online scammer was genuine and that they’d been in contact for two years.

The AustralianCompetition & ConsumerCommission has warned that scammers targeting Australians in love scams will go to "great lengths to gain your interest and trust, such as sharing personal information".

"Scammers may take months to build what seems like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit you but never actually come.“

The commission warned there were dozens of scams including dating and romance, identity theft, get-rich investments, money transfer and jobs.

Fraudsters personalise scams to fit their victims, using fake webcams, video-changing programs and photos of others to build a false identity and then prowl the internet for victims.

Defence lawyers said Ms Exposto, a former social worker in East Timor, never wavered in her account. Mr Shafee said Ms Exposto was a "responsible mother" who told him she was so anti-drugs that if her four children ever got into drugs she’d kill them herself.

Her family and friends in Australia, including a son who travelled to Kuala Lumpur for the verdict, were shocked by her arrest after she volunteered to put her bag with the drugs through Customs. The drugs were sewn into a hidden part of the bag. She insists she never knew they were there.

Malaysian government officials say despite the law change giving judges discretionary powers on capital punishment, authorities are not going softer on drug trafficking. "We do not want the judges' hands tied," said Azalina Othman Said, a minister in the prime minister's department.

After the acquittal, Ms Exposto was sent back to jail. Lawyers said her passport had expired while she was awaiting trial and they would apply for another from the Australian embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Mr Abdullah told reporters there was overwhelming evidence she was tricked into carrying the bag.

Leaving the court, Ms Exposto's son Hugo said: "I am very happy."

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