Australian escapes death with Malaysia drugs acquittal

KUALA LUMPUR - An Australian truck driver was acquitted of drug trafficking by a Malaysian court on Wednesday, ending an 18-month ordeal in which he faced a mandatory death sentence if convicted.

"I'm very surprised. It's good news. I'm going to get a few things in order and just get my butt out of the country," Dominic Bird told AFP.

Bird was arrested on March 1, 2012 for alleged possession of 167 grams (5.8 ounces) of methamphetamine and charged with drug trafficking.

Anyone in possession of at least 50 grams of methamphetamine is considered a trafficker in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Conviction carries a mandatory sentence of death by hanging.

Lawyers for Bird, who is in his 30s and hails from Western Australia, argued that a government chemist had erred when analysing the substance found on their client.

"The judge came to the conclusion that the prosecution had failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt," said Bird's lawyer Tania Scivetti.

"He's going to go back home and be with his family."

The government chemist who confirmed that the substance in Bird's possession was methamphetamine had told the High Court last year that she tested a smaller amount of the substance than legally required.

Bird's lawyers had previously sought but failed to have the case thrown out on those grounds.

Some 700 people, mostly men convicted of drug-related offences, were on death row in Malaysia as of 2011, though few have been executed in recent years. Updated figures were not immediately available.

Since 1960 nearly 450 people have been executed, including two Australians put to death in 1986 for heroin trafficking - the first Westerners to be hanged.

In November 2012 Australian nurse Emma Louise L'Aiguille was freed after prosecutors dropped a drug trafficking charge against her.