Prosecutors in Malaysia have rejected an appeal to drop a murder charge against Doan Thi Huong, a 30-year-old Vietnamese woman accused of assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam.
The decision to proceed with the trial comes after a surprise court decision on Monday allowed her Indonesian co-defendant Siti Aisyah, 27, to walk free.
A High Court judge discharged the Indonesian suspect without an acquittal after prosecutors said they had been instructed to withdraw the charge against her without offering a reason.
The Indonesian Embassy flew Aisyah to Jakarta the same day, while lobbying efforts by President Joko Widodo’s administration are thought to have played a key role in securing her release.
Doan is now the only suspect in the case still behind bars. Her lawyer, Hisham Teh Poh Teik, slammed Malaysian Attorney General Tommy Thomas’ decision to reject the appeal.
“The decision not to withdraw does not sit well with our criminal justice system. There is discrimination as the prosecution favors one party to the other,” he told reporters.
Both women were charged on the same evidence and ordered by the court in August to enter their defense on the same grounds after a judge ruled the prosecution had proven a prima facie case against the accused.
Doan was due to testify on Thursday but was declared “mentally and physically” unfit to do so because of a lack of sleep and ill-health.
After the ruling was announced, Doan was seen sobbing and shaking violently. She pressed the hands of Vietnamese Ambassador to Malaysia Le Quy Quynh to her forehead before being handcuffed to be taken back to jail.
The diplomat expressed disappointment over the prosecutor’s decision, saying Hanoi would push for her release “as soon as possible.”
The rejection of Doan’s appeal follows an unprecedented public request for her release by Hanoi, which does not ordinarily get involved in overseas criminal cases involving its citizens.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, in a telephone call on Wednesday with his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah, asked Malaysia to “ensure a fair trial and free Vietnamese citizen Doan Thi Huong.”
During the conversation, the minister said that senior leaders and the people of Vietnam had paid close attention to the trial, according to a government statement.
A separate official statement issued by Hanoi said Vietnamese Justice Minister Le Thanh Long had sent a letter to Malaysia’s attorney general asking for Doan to be freed.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has said the country’s embassy in Malaysia had “closely monitored the case” over the last two years while providing consular services and legal advice to Doan.
Analysts have, however, noted that lobbying efforts by Hanoi have been comparatively less sustained than those of Jakarta.
Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Aisyah’s plight was raised in “every bilateral Indonesia-Malaysia meeting” over the past two years, adding that the 27-year-old woman had been “deceived and did not realize at all that she was being manipulated by North Korean intelligence.”
Analysts believe improved relations between Indonesia and Malaysia since Mahathir Mohamad returned to the Malaysian premiership last year helped secure her release.
The Indonesian Embassy’s statement also said that Widodo had personally “ordered efforts to secure [Aisyah’s] release” immediately after her arrest in February 2017.
Police quickly apprehended both women shortly after closed-circuit television cameras captured them accosting Kim Jong Nam in an airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur, where they are believed to have smeared the 45-year-old man’s face with a liquid VX nerve agent, a banned substance classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
Both women pleaded not guilty in court and said they were duped by North Korean agents into believing they were participating in a prank for a hidden-camera TV show that saw them smearing lotion on the faces of strangers in exchange for cash. Four North Korean suspects believed to have supplied the banned chemical used in the killing are still at large.
Responding to Jakarta’s request, Malaysia’s attorney general wrote that the “prosecution will request the court to order a discharge not amounting to an acquittal” after “taking into account the good relations” between the two countries in a letter revealed by the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur this week.
Jakarta’s extensive lobbying efforts have prompted some to question whether interference in Malaysia’s justice system had taken place. Addressing criticism over the matter, Law Minister Liew Vui Keong said Wednesday that the attorney general had sole discretion in withdrawing charges against the accused.
James Chin, a political analyst and director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, told Asia Times that prosecutors might have rejected Doan’s appeal because they could have further evidence implicating her.
“How could they release one suspect when both are charged for the same crime unless they have new information on her role? The situation would have been different if they had one of the North Korean agents in custody,” he said.
Defense lawyers for the two women had previously cast doubt on the fairness of the trial, claiming that Malaysian authorities had compromised the proceedings by allowing the North Korean suspects to leave the country.
Malaysia also permitted other North Korean citizens of interest and diplomatic staff to exit the country in a deal with Pyongyang to ease a tense diplomatic row between the two countries sparked by the international murder plot.
Lawyers for the women had previously accused the prosecution of being desperate to secure a conviction in the high-profile case.
Vietnamese diplomatic efforts have so far proved less effective than those of Indonesia and analysts believe Malaysia risks creating a rift with Hanoi if their citizen is not afforded similar treatment to that received by the Indonesian co-defendant.
Doan’s lawyers say they will be making a second representation for the charges to be dropped.
North Korea has never acknowledged the deceased – who traveled on a diplomatic passport under the name “Kim Chol” – as the half-brother of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, or as the eldest son of late leader Kim Jong Il.
North Korean officials have only referred to Kim Jong Nam as “a citizen of the DPRK” and blamed his death on a heart attack.
Kim Jong Nam had been based in Macau since the early 2000s and enjoyed well-established ties with the Chinese government, according to US intelligence reports.
He kept a very low profile, but was known to be critical of his younger half-brother’s ascension in e-mail exchanges published in a book by Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi.
His 23-year-old son, Kim Han Sol, was similarly critical of Pyongyang in a 2012 Finnish television interview.
After the lethal poisoning of his father, he appeared in a 40-second video saying he was at a safe location with his family, which appeared on the YouTube channel of the Cheollima Civil Defense (CCD), a group that assists North Korean defectors.
The whereabouts of Kim Jong Nam’s family are currently unknown.
A report in The Wall Street Journal claimed in 2017 that the US, China and the Netherlands had provided Kim Han Sol, along with his mother and sister, with protection and travel assistance after his father’s killing, though representatives of the countries cited declined to comment.
Pyongyang’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur was vandalized with graffiti on Monday morning hours before the trial convened with slogans reading “Down with Kim Jong Un” and “Free North Korea … we are rising up!”
The logo of “Free Joseon” was also seen etched on the wall outside the building, a name the CCD group adopted this month.
A March 1 Internet posting by the group announced itself as a provisional government-in-exile and “the sole legitimate representative of the Korean people of the North.” Little is known about the CCD, which emerged in 2017 and is believed to be sheltering the North Korean leader’s nephew, though many speculate it has links to South Korea’s spy agency.