Kuala Lumpur: An Australian grandmother who was the victim of an online romance scam has been acquitted of drugs charges in Malaysia.
Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, 54, would have faced execution if found guilty in Malaysia's High Court on Wednesday, despite lawmakers in Kuala Lumpur 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 Exposto's lawyers on Wednesday night they had decided to appeal the acquittal, meaning she will not be allowed to immediately return to Australia.
Earlier prosecutors had asked for her to be deported with days.
Ms Exposto insisted she was duped into flying into Kuala Lumpur's international airport from Shanghai in December 2014 with 1.5 kilograms of methamphetamine in her luggage.
Defence lawyers say Ms Exposto, a mother of four from Cabramatta in Sydney, 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 US 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 she was lured into carrying a bag from Shanghai to Melbourne - transiting in Kuala Lumpur - which she believed to contain only clothing by a supposed acquaintance of the soldier.
"He (Smith) made me feel loved, he made me feel wanted," she said.
The scam involved the supposed soldier sending her photographs .
"Smith would sing to me a few times a day and send poems as well," she said.
Defence lawyer Shafee Abdullah told reporters that Ms Exposto's testimony revealed what she strongly believed was a close relationship with the fictional Smith.
"There are probably thousands, mostly women, who have (been) conned in similar situations," he said.
Ms Exposto arrived in court on Wednesday wearing a black blazer, white top and black slacks, having lost weight during more than two years in a Kuala Lumpur jail.
She smiled and chatted with lawyers before the verdict was delivered.
A judge said he found that 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 said he believed Ms Exposto's love for the online scammer was genuine and that they been in contact for two years.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission 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 and even sending you gifts".
"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 ACCC said.
The commission warned there are dozens of scams including those involved in dating and romance, identity theft, get-rich investments, money transfers, jobs and employment.
Fraudsters often personalise scams to fit the profile of their victim.
Often scammers use fake webcams, video changing programs and photographs of other people to build a false identity and then prowl the internet for victims.
The US military has described the scams as a "growing epidemic".
Australian defence personnel have also had their identities stolen by scammers.
Defence lawyers say Ms Exposto, a former social worker in East Timor, has never wavered in her account of the scam.
Mr Shafee said Ms Exposto is a "responsible mother" who told him she is so anti-drugs that if her four children ever got involved in drugs she would kill them herself.
Her family and friends in Sydney, 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 screening.
The drugs were sewn into a hidden compartment in the bag and she insists she never knew they were there.
Malaysia has hanged more than 440 convicted drug offenders since 1960.
Two Australians, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, were the first Westerners to be executed under Malaysia's then new drug laws in 1989, after being arrested with 141.9 grams of heroin.
Michael McAuliffe, another Australian, was hanged in Kuala Lumpur in 1993 after being found with heroin in his pocket at a Penang airport checkpoint.
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 on Wednesday night.
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 after the verdict the case was "clear cut". He said there was overwhelming evidence she was tricked into carrying the bag.
Leaving the court, Ms Exposto's son Hugo said: "I am very happy."
The story Australian Maria Elvira Exposto not guilty of drugs charges in Malaysia first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.