SHAH ALAM, MALAYSIA - A Vietnamese woman who is the only suspect in custody for the killing of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in a Malaysian court Monday and her lawyer said she could be freed as early as next month.
Doan Thi Huong had faced a murder charge, which carried the death penalty if she was convicted, in the slaying of Kim Jong Nam, who died after being accosted by two women in a Kuala Lumpur airport terminal. Huong nodded as a translator read the new charge to her: voluntarily causing injury with a dangerous weapon, VX nerve agent.
High Court Judge Azmi Ariffin sentenced Huong to three years and four months from the day she was arrested on Feb. 15, 2017. Her lawyer, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, said his client is expected to be freed by the first week of May, after a one-third reduction in her sentence for good behavior.
“I am happy,” Huong told reporters as she left the courtroom, adding she thought it was a fair outcome.
While handing out a jail term short of the maximum 10 years the new charge carried, the judge told Huong she was “very, very lucky” and he wished her “all the best.” Vietnamese officials in the courtroom cheered when the decision was announced.
Huong is the only suspect in custody after the Malaysian attorney-general’s stunning decision to drop the murder case against Siti Aisyah, an Indonesian national, on March 11 following high-level lobbying from Jakarta. Huong sought to be acquitted after Aisyah was freed, but prosecutors rejected her request.
The original charge had alleged the two women colluded with four North Koreans to murder Kim with VX nerve agent they smeared on his face as he was passing through the airport on Feb. 13, 2017. The women had said they thought they were taking part in a harmless prank for a TV show.
The four North Koreans fled Malaysia on the same day Kim was killed.
The High Court judge last August had found there was enough evidence to infer that Aisyah, Huong and the four North Koreans engaged in a “well-planned conspiracy” to kill Kim and had called on the two women to present their defense.
Lawyers for the women have said that they were pawns in a political assassination with clear links to the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and that the prosecution failed to show the women had any intention to kill. Intent to kill is crucial to a murder charge under Malaysian law.
Huong’s lawyer told the court Monday that her guilty plea to the lesser charge shows she “has taken responsibility” for her actions. In asking for a lenient sentence, he also told the court that her move saved judicial time.
Hisyam had urged the judge to take into account Huong’s honesty, her acceptance of responsibility and the acquittal of her co-defendant.
“She is neither a criminal nor has the propensity to commit a crime,” Hisyam said.
Huong, the youngest of five children, has a promising future with a degree in accountancy but she is also “naive and gullible,” he said.
Hisyam said four North Korean suspects still at large are the “real assassins.”
They “exploited her weakness and manipulated her to carry out their evil designs under the camouflage of funny videos and pranks,” he said.
Hisyam said Huong had been punished physically and emotionally since she was detained two years ago and had urged the judge to temper justice with mercy.
Before the sentencing, Vietnamese Ambassador Le Quy Qunyh said he expected Huong to be freed immediately. After the sentencing he said: “I am highly appreciative that she will be released very soon but I want to emphasize that she is a victim like the Indonesian.”
Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea and have made it clear they don’t want the trial politicized.
Kim Jong Nam was the eldest son in the current generation of North Korea’s ruling family. He had been living abroad for years but could have been seen as a threat to Kim Jong Un’s rule.