Asia Pacific / Crime & Legal

Women's trial over Kim Jong Nam killing heads to defense phase

AP, Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Two Southeast Asian women on trial for the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother were told to begin their defense Thursday, extending the trial for several more months.

Indonesia’s Siti Aisyah and Vietnam’s Doan Thi Huong are accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face in an airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13, 2017.

High Court Judge Azmi Ariffin said he was not persuaded by the defense’s argument that the women thought they were taking part in a prank for a hidden-camera show. He said enough evidence had been presented so far in the six-month trial to infer the women and four North Korean suspects had engaged in a “well-planned conspiracy” to kill Kim “systemically.”

With the prosecution laying out enough evidence of the women’s guilt for the case against them to proceed, “I therefore call upon them to enter their defense,” the judge said after reading his ruling for more than two hours.

Indonesian Ambassador Rusdi Kirana told reporters outside court that he was shocked by the ruling but his government will abide by it. The judge could have acquitted the women.

Aisyah, 25, and Huong, 29, appeared to be calm and told the judge they would testify under oath in their defense. They are the only suspects in custody and face the death penalty if convicted. The four North Korean suspects fled the country the same morning Kim was killed.

The defense teams have argued that the women are simply scapegoats, with the authorities unable to catch the real killers, the North Koreans, and therefore desperate to secure some kind of conviction in the case.

The pair, who face death by hanging if found guilty, claim they fell victim to an elaborate plot hatched by North Korean agents and believed they were taking part in a prank for a reality TV show when they attacked Kim with a chemical classified as a weapon of mass destruction.

According to the case presented so far, the four men, known to Aisyah and Huong by code names, recruited and trained the two women to accost strangers in a fashion like that used on the day they attacked Kim. That day the men provided the women with the banned chemical weapon that they smeared on his face.

Airport security footage shown in court captured the moment of the attack, and prosecutors also said the camera images linked the women to the four male suspects. Shortly after Kim arrived at the airport, Huong was seen approaching him, clasping her hands on his face from behind and then fleeing. Another blurred figure was also seen running away from Kim and a police investigator testified that it was Aisyah.

Kim died within two hours of the attack.

The four men — Ri Ji Hyon, Ri Jae Nam, Hong Song Hac and O Jong Gil — fled Malaysia within hours of the incident and are believed to have returned to North Korea.

The men have been charged with having “common intention” with the women to murder Kim and are now on an Interpol wanted list.

Expert witnesses testified that traces of VX were found on the clothing of both women. Video recordings played in court showed them meeting two of the fugitives at the airport before the attack.

Defense lawyers have said the prosecution failed to show the two women had any intention to kill — key to establishing they are guilty of murder.

Aisyah’s lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, has called the evidence against his client “flimsy and circumstantial” because it relied only on security footage and the traces of VX on her.

Huong’s lawyer, Hisyam Teh, has said his client’s conduct after the incident was that of an innocent person.

But the judge said their intention to kill can be inferred from the targeting of Kim’s eyes, where the nerve agent would penetrate faster. He said that evidence pointed to a “simultaneous act” by the women. The judge also said their hurrying to separate bathrooms also established their intention to cause Kim’s death.

“I have no slightest doubt that their desperate act of rushing to the toilets is to solely decontaminate the poison on their hands,” Azmi said. He said they seemed worried and tense before washing their hands, but relaxed afterward.

“The onus is on the accused to explain their conduct,” he added.

Azmi said he “cannot rule out that this could be a political assassination,” but found no concrete evidence of one.

The defense has argued the real culprits are the four North Korean suspects and have pointed to an embassy employee who helped arrange their travel as evidence of embassy involvement.

Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea and have made it clear they don’t want the trial politicized.

Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son in the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding, had been living abroad for years after falling out of favor. It is thought he could have been seen as a threat to Kim Jong Un’s rule.

Prior to his killing, Kim Jong Nam had voiced fears over his safety. It has been reported that there were earlier unsuccessful attempts on his life in Macau, where he had been living in self-imposed exile.

The women’s families had been hopeful they would be acquitted.

Huong’s father, Doan Van Thanh, said he could not sleep the previous night, anxious to hear the ruling. He said, “I had thought she would be innocent.”

He added: “I don’t know what to do next. I just hope they will announce her innocent so that she can return home.”

Aisyah’s father, Asria, said in an interview from the family’s village on Indonesia’s Java island: “She knows nothing, she was fooled. The case (against her) was made up.”

Her mother, Benah, added: “This is unfair. I wanted her to be released today but if the court refuses what can I do? I can only pray for the final verdict.”