KUALA LUMPUR: Two women accused of killing the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pleaded not guilty to murder charges in a Malaysian court on Monday (Oct 2).
Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, a Vietnamese, are charged with assassinating Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX, a chemical poison banned by the United Nations, at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport on Feb 13.
Both women wore bullet-proof vest as they were led into the court on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital.
The murder charge was read first to Aisyah, 25, who was wearing traditional Malay dress, in the Indonesian language. After conferring with an interpreter, the interpreter indicated she was pleading not guilty.
The charge was then read to Huong, 29, who was wearing a blue jumper, in the Vietnamese language. Her interpreter also told the court she was pleading not guilty.
The prosecution said in its charge sheet their actions showed “intent to kill the victim” by smearing his face and eyes with VX nerve agent, which a post-mortem confirmed had killed Kim.
Defense lawyers demanded that the prosecution immediately name four other suspects who have also been charged in the case but who are still at large. The prosecution said their identities would be revealed during the trial.
The defendants were arrested just days after the Cold War-style killing of Kim Jong Nam on Feb 13 as he waited to board a plane to Macau at Kuala Lumpur airport, but have barely been seen since.
Kim died an agonising death about 20 minutes after the attack, which was caught on airport CCTV as the VX – a chemical so deadly it is listed as a weapon of mass destruction – rapidly overcame his central nervous system.
The murder sparked a fierce row between North Korea and Malaysia, which had been one of Pyongyang’s few allies amid global alarm over the country’s atomic weapons programme, with both countries expelling each other’s ambassadors.
The women – who may face the death penalty if convicted – are expected to plead not guilty at the start of the trial. The pair claim they were duped into believing they were taking part in a prank for a reality TV show.
Defence lawyers are convinced the real culprits have left Malaysia and that the women’s innocence will be proven in court.
“We are fairly confident that at the end of trial, they will probably be acquitted,” Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, a lawyer for Huong, said.
He told Channel NewsAsia that Huong “looks forward to her trial, where she hopes her innocence will be established”.
“We know our defence. She’s got a strong case, we’ll do our best for her. But up to this point in time, let’s hear what the prosecutor has to say,” he said.
“What will happen on Monday is that the prosecution will start its case, call its witnesses and reveal the narrative. We are made to understand they’ll call expert witnesses first.”
Their only appearances since February have been at heavily guarded court dates, with the diminutive pair dwarfed by heavily armed police as they have been ushered into hearings wearing flak jackets and handcuffs in front of the world’s media.
The closely-watched trial begins Monday at Sham Alam High Court, just outside Kuala Lumpur, with the prosecution to start presenting its case after the women’s pleas.
There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the murder.
These range from how two women living precarious existences among Malaysia’s army of migrant workers allegedly became involved in a high-profile assassination, to how a lethal nerve agent was deployed in an airport and killed Kim but harmed no one else.
South Korea accuses the North of being behind the murder of Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, who had voiced criticism of the regime after falling from grace and going to live in exile overseas.
The North denies the allegation.
The run-up to the trial has been marked by fierce criticism from the women’s lawyers who accuse prosecutors of failing to properly cooperate with them.
Some North Korean figures suspected of links to the plot fled Malaysia immediately after the assassination, while others were allowed to leave the country later to ease the diplomatic crisis.
Prosecutors – who insist the women will get a fair trial – will lay out their case over two months and will call 30 to 40 witnesses. The defence is then likely to be called.
(Additional reporting by Sumisha Naidu.)