10 Cases Of Criminal Activity By Diplomats
Diplomats are representatives of their governments and are protected by diplomatic immunity, meaning that they usually can’t be prosecuted for crimes they may commit while stationed abroad. This is a reciprocal arrangement which serves to protect civil servants in foreign postings, but like any privilege, it can be abused. In some particularly egregious cases, even diplomatic immunity has its limits.
10 Funeral Pyre
In 1967, Sao Boonwaat was the ambassador for Burma in Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka). He’d previously served in an official capacity in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and France, and he represented Burma in the International Atomic Energy Agency Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Boonwaat caused international headlines when he shot and killed his wife, Shirley, over an alleged affair with popular night club singer Rex de Silva. Shirley Boonwaat had been active in Colombo high society and charity events but allegedly had a history of infidelity.
Initially, the official story was that she died of cerebral hemorrhage caused by hypertension. She had met Silva at the popular 388 nightclub, where he performed with his band. On October 14, Mrs. Boonwaat had an affair with Silva and then dropped him off at his apartment before heading home to be confronted by her husband. Nearby construction workers soon heard gunshots. The ambassador had threatened his wife with a gun and dragged her into the garden, but some reports suggest that she may have pressed herself to the gun before it went off. At least, that’s what the ambassador would later tell a Rangoon court.
Things got weird when Boonwaat built a funeral pyre to cremate his wife on the grounds of the diplomatic compound, and nearby residents woke up to a strong smell and the sight of a group of Buddhist monks giving the final rites. When Sri Lankan police arrived, they were reminded that the compound was technically Burmese territory, and they couldn’t intervene. This led to a diplomatic dispute between the two countries, and Boonwaat was recalled to Rangoon.
There was apparently a trial, but it is unclear what happened in the aftermath. According to the memoirs of New Zealand diplomat Gerald Hensley:
The story was she had started an affair with a band leader, and when she came back late one evening he shot her. The next morning he was out in Cinnamon Gardens, a suburb of Colombo, carrying logs for the fire. It caused quite a stink. The ambassador said it was Burmese territory and they couldn’t enter. In the end he was removed by the Burmese government and nobody seems to know what happened to him.
9 Blackberry Theft
During the 2008 North American Leaders’ Summit in New Orleans between US president George W. Bush, Mexican president Felipe Calderon, and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, one Mexican press attache was caught on film pocketing several Blackberries belonging to the White House. Six or seven of the handheld devices had been left behind by US officials attending the high-level meeting, where such devices were not permitted for security reasons. They were pocketed by one Rafael Quintero Curiel, who was in charge of handling logistics and guiding the Mexican media during the conference.
Quintero Curiel had made it to the airport before the the Secret Service caught up to him, and he initially denied taking them. After being shown security camera video of him taking the devices, he claimed that he had only taken them by accident for safekeeping, gave them back, claimed diplomatic immunity, and left with the rest of the Mexican delegation. He later told the Mexican media that he had taken the devices thinking that they had been left behind and then rushed to the airport, so he gave the Blackberries to his driver to take back to the hotel. He even claimed that the Secret Service had thanked him after he had explained himself. The diplomat was mocked on US and Mexican political blogs, becoming known as the “Blackberry Mexican bandit.”
8 Spousal Abuse
In 1999, the Japanese consul general to Vancouver, Shuji Simokoji, was arrested for beating his wife. He entered a guilty plea and was given an absolute discharge, meaning no punishment or criminal record. He caused anger back home when he announced, “Since old times in Japan, it has not mattered if a husband hit his wife. This is a cultural difference.” It was only after the backlash to this comment from officials that Simokoji apologized for the remark and for abusing his wife, and he was soon ordered back to Japan.
Sadly, this was not the last case of spousal abuse by a Japanese diplomat. Japan’s vice consul general to San Francisco, Yoshiaki Nagaya, was charged in 2012 for injuring his wife, Yuka, by throwing her from a slow-moving vehicle during an argument. As he was not working at the time of the incident, he was not protected by diplomatic immunity. He was charged with 16 instances of domestic abuse, including knocking his wife’s teeth out and stabbing her in the hand with a screwdriver. Asked why she hadn’t immediately gone to the police the first time her husband became violent in 2011, Mrs. Nagaya said, “People in Japan don’t call the police when it is a fight between a man and a wife.” Mr. Nagaya was ultimately sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to complete complete 104 hours of domestic violence counseling and three years of probation.
7 Mohammed Rizalman Bin Ismail
While serving as a military attache at the Malaysian embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, Mohammed Rizalman bin Ismail entered the home of 21-year-old Tania Billingsley, who lived in the same suburb as the embassy. He came in through her unlocked front door after taking off his pants and underwear and then took off his jacket and knocked on her bedroom door. When she opened it, she found Ismail waiting for her wearing only a shirt, asking her, “Can I come in?” Billingsley screamed and struggled with Ismail, ultimately succeeding in pushing him out of the house and calling police.
He was charged with burglary and attempted rape but was sent back to Malaysia due to diplomatic immunity, apparently after New Zealand officials gave the impression to their Malaysian counterparts that they didn’t oppose Ismail being sent home. Public outcry in both countries saw Ismail extradited to face New Zealand courts, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to indecent assault.
More weird details emerged during the trial, including that Ismail had purchased synthetic marijuana (though he wouldn’t admit to using it) and that he had defecated outside Billingsley’s house in the apparent belief it would magically impel her to fall in love with him. Crown prosecutor Grant Burston told him, “[That] was the reason you took off your belt and lowered your trousers and underpants outside this young woman’s front door on the patio. It was more about black magic than about having to go to the toilet in an emergency.” He also claimed he was mentally unstable at the time of the attack, but Burston alleged that the behavior was more likely the result of “cannabis use and anxiety.”
6 Gueorgui Makharadze
In January 1997, Gueorgui Makharadze, Georgia’s second-highest diplomat in the United States, was driving at 140 kilometers per hour (90 mph) under the influence of alcohol when he plowed his Ford Taurus into a row of cars near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, causing a five-car pileup. The accident caused the death of Maryland 16-year-old Joviane Waltrick and injuries to four other people. A promising diplomat before the incident, Makharadzhe had his diplomatic immunity waived by Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, who said, “It was with a very heavy heart that I took this decision . . . but no matter what the sentence may be, I’d still believe my very harsh decision would be justified. Justice is very often ruthless.”
The diplomat pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and four counts of aggravated assault, saying, “I only wish I could undo what I have done.” He was sentenced to seven to 21 years in prison. In 2000, he was transferred to Tbilisi to finish serving his sentence in his home country but was then released in 2002 after completing three years of his sentence. According to attorney Mark S. Zaid, who represented Joviane Waltrick’s mother in seeking reparations from the Georgian government, both the incarceration and the release were linked with political considerations, the former due to an oil pipeline and the latter linked to US-Georgia negotiations regarding putting US troops on Georgian soil to help fight the War on Terror.
5 Birthday Massacre
The staff at the Chinese consulate in Cebu in the Philippines were celebrating a birthday party at an upscale restaurant in 2015 when something went terribly awry. Waiters reported hearing a loud argument from a private room, followed by gunshots. Consul General Song Ronghua was rushed to hospital, while Deputy Consul General Sun Shen and finance officer Li Hui were killed, shot in the neck and head, respectively. Police discovered a .45-caliber pistol at the scene and arrested the two main suspects, Guo Jing and her husband, Li Qingliang, both of whom claimed to work in the visa section of the consulate and claimed diplomatic immunity.
One waiter reported that the group had ordered a banquet of tuna head, shrimp, and roasted pork, but no alcohol was served. According to Cebu Police City Intelligence Branch superintendent Colonel Romeo Santander, closed-circuit TV footage showed that the argument had broken out among the Chinese guests while hired singers were in the middle of a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Li and Guo fled in a vehicle but were later arrested at the consular office. The Philippines Foreign Ministry said that the couple was protected from local criminal jurisdiction under the Vienna Convention and announced that they would be handed over to Chinese authorities, who were pursuing their own investigation. The couple were flown on a chartered flight to Xiamen to face Chinese judicial proceedings.
4 The Death Of Teo Peter
Popular Romanian rock star Teo Peter was riding in a taxi in Bucharest in December 2004 when the commander of the the US embassy’s Marine detachment, Staff Sergeant Christopher Van Goethem, failed to stop at a juncture and slammed headlong into the taxi, killing Peter and injuring the driver. The Marine left the country immediately after the incident, prompting a furious reaction from the Romanian public. The US embassy claimed that Van Goethem “was escorted out of country by an embassy security officer and is currently at a US military facility. [ . . . ] The information provided by police will be used to determine, what, if any charges are brought against the individual.”
The incident caused a rift in US-Romanian relations after the US government offered a settlement of only $80,000 to Teo Peter’s family. According to a US embassy cable released through Wikileaks:
Popular outcry over what will be seen by most Romanians as an insultingly small offer to Peter’s survivors will prompt renewed calls, with much more potential popular support, for the rapid withdrawal of Romanian troops from Iraq. Likewise, backing in the Romanian parliament and among members of the public for the new U.S. troop presence at joint U.S.-Romanian military facilities on the Black Sea will plummet, at least temporarily. [ . . . ] Many Romanians viewed his abrupt departure before local investigators had the opportunity to question him and conduct tests on his blood alcohol level as a slap in the face and an effort to shield the Marine from justice.
Despite his diplomatic immunity, Van Goethem found himself before a court martial board, where he was charged with negligent homicide and adultery, having allegedly been engaged in an affair with embassy secretary Ilse Wentworth, whom he had dropped off at her home before the incident. He was acquitted of those charges but was convicted of obstruction of justice and making false official statements, having colluded with Wentworth to lie about their whereabouts during the evening, claiming to have had dinner at a pizza restaurant when they had actually been having sex at Van Goethem’s home. Van Goethem’s lawyer argued that the incident was an accident, caused by the intersection being “chaotic and nonsensically signed.” However, prosecutor Major Charles Miracle argued that Van Goethem was familiar with the intersection, and that, “Your common sense will tell you he either ignored [three] stop signs, or he zoned out. And the only explanation [was] alcohol and fatigue.”
3 Russian Diplomat DUIs
In 2001, Russian diplomat Andrei Knazyev was returning from an ice fishing party when he hit two women walking on the sidewalk in Ottawa, killing 50-year-old lawyer Catherine MacLean and injuring her friend Catherine Dor. When police arrived at the scene, he refused a breathalyzer test by citing diplomatic immunity and was then spirited out of the country. He later released a statement expressing regret due to the incident but claimed that he hadn’t been drinking, that driving conditions were bad, and that the women had been walking in the road. Though the Russians refused to waive his diplomatic immunity, they charged him with involuntary manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol and sentenced him to four years in prison.
In 2015, another Russian diplomat was allegedly drunk driving when he rammed a motorcycle with his car in South Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, Moti Bagh. The motorcycle had been stopped at a police barricade when it was suddenly rammed from behind by a car with diplomatic plates, injuring two. The driver then began to ram the barricade and even got out to fight with the police. According to one of the injured:
“He was so intoxicated that he could not control the car and he was practically unconscious. He was driving really fast and was unable to stop. His car is so badly damaged and this is proof of how hard he rammed into the police barricade. When the police tried to get him out of the car, he refused to do so.”
A police report indicated: “The car’s driver came out and began assaulting the motorcyclist. When Constable Nek Singh intervened, the Russian national manhandled him as well before locking himself in the car when other cops rushed to their colleague’s rescue.” Unable to arrest the diplomat due to diplomatic immunity, the police waited for embassy security to arrive, and one of the driver’s friends came and took him away.
2 UN Bribery Case
Former president of the UN General Assembly John Ashe, who also served as UN ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda, was charged in 2015 with receiving $500,000 in bribes from Chinese businessman Ng Lap Seng, who wanted to build a UN conference center in Macau. Ashe took the money in exchange for submitting a document in support of the conference center to the UN and was also accused of accepting $800,000 from other Chinese businessmen in order to facilitate business deals. According to prosecutors, this allowed Ashe to spend $30,000 on a basketball court in his home, $59,000 on tailored clothing, $54,000 on Rolexes, $40,000 on BMW payments, $69,000 on a vacation club, and a stay at an $850-a-night suite in New Orleans.
Also arrested in the criminal case was Dominican Republic diplomat Francis Lorenzo, who was given a $2 million bail over objections from prosecutors, who said that Lorenzo was too powerful and well-connected around the world to trust not to make a run for it. Assistant US Attorney Daniel Richenthal said that Lorenzo had received financing for a $3.6 million luxury Manhattan apartment from Ng, as well as $30,000 in monthly revenue, which he funneled back to the Dominican Republic. Lorenzo was told by the magistrate that he could stay at his mother’s house in the Bronx as long as bail conditions were met, including electronic surveillance and a temporary waiver of immunity.
1 North Korea’s Diplomat Drug Smugglers
North Korea has a long history of smuggling drugs as a means of gaining foreign capital, and they have even been willing to use their own diplomatic corps to carry it out. Much of this can be linked to the fact that North Korea pays its diplomats very poorly and expects its embassies to be “self-financing,” forcing them to resort to bootlegging and smuggling. In 1976, the North Korean embassy in Denmark was denied permission to import 2.5 million cigarettes for personal consumption. Later that year, the entire staff was ejected from the country after two North Korean diplomats were found with half a ton of marijuana in their limousine.
In 2004, a US report detailed over 50 incidents in which North Korean diplomats had been caught with drugs over the previous 20 years. Pyongyang withdrew its embassy in Bulgaria when two of its diplomats were accused of smuggling drugs after Turkish police seized 621,000 narcotic pills, believed to be headed to drug markets in the Arab world. Diplomats were arrested and deported in the United States at around the same time for smuggling the synthetic drug phenethylline.
In 2013, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that South Korean intelligence had discovered that the North Korean government had sent a large batch of methamphetamines to its embassy in an Eastern European country with orders to sell it and send the money back. Apparently, 20-kilogram (40 lb) packages of meth had been sent out to diplomats, totaling up to 200 kilograms (400 lb), with a deadline for sale of April 15, the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday. One defector claimed, “Drugs are sent from North Korea several times a year by ship or trucks. An embassy staffer meets up with smugglers at a secret location to get them.”
David Tormsen’s claims of diplomatic immunity are as unrecognized as his sovereignty as an independent archipelago. Email him at [email protected].