An Indonesian woman accused of assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam with a liquid VX nerve agent in 2017 has walked free after a Malaysian court dropped a murder charge against her.
“I am surprised and very happy. I did not expect that today I would be released,” Siti Aisyah, 27, told reporters before being ushered out of the courtroom and escorted to an Indonesian embassy car waiting for outside, according to media reports.
Upon hearing the court’s decision, the Indonesian broke out in tears and hugged her co-accused, Doan Thi Huong, a 30-year-old Vietnamese woman who is still being held in the case and is soon expected to testify.
The pair, who have been in custody for two years, are the only suspects detained in connection with the killing of Kim Jong-nam.
Police quickly apprehended both women shortly after closed-circuit television cameras captured them accosting the 45-year-old North Korean in an airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur on February 13, 2017.
The two women, both from rural Southeast Asian villages who lived precariously as undocumented migrant workers in the Malaysian capital, say 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.
“I still believe that North Korea had something to do with it. We still believe that she was merely a scapegoat,” Aisyah’s lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, told reporters. His request that the Indonesian be fully acquitted was, however, rejected by the court, which maintains that the prosecution had proven a prima facie case against the accused.
Prosecutors told the court on Monday that they had been instructed to withdraw the charge against Aisyah without giving a reason, though she could still be recalled if fresh evidence of her complicity emerges. She is now free to leave Malaysia and Indonesian Ambassador Rusdi Kirana has said she would return home as soon as possible.
The surprise acquittal came as the court had been scheduled to hear the testimony of co-defendant Doan Thi Huong, whose lawyers have sought an adjournment in order to submit a request that charges also be dropped against her. The court agreed to resume proceedings on Thursday, pending a reply from the attorney general on the request.
“The charge against Siti Aiysah was withdrawn but the charge against Doan was not. And no reason was advanced. We do not know on what basis the charge has been withdrawn,” Doan Thi Huong’s lawyer, Hisyam Teh Pok Teik, told reporters.
Although the two women had regularly been brought to the dock together, they were being tried separately in the case.
The trial has moved slowly because of infrequently scheduled hearings and a large number of witnesses. There have been no hearings since last August, when the prosecution finished presenting its case. Aisyah’s trial was suspended in December when her lawyers appealed a court decision not to compel prosecutors to turn over witness statements.
Aisyah was originally set to take the stand in January after trial judge Azmi Ariffin ordered the suspects to enter their defense after ruling that prosecutors had successfully established a case and that there were sufficient grounds to believe the two women had engaged in a “well-planned conspiracy” with four other North Korean suspects who are still at large.
The four North Koreans are widely believed to have arranged and coordinated the hit, including the recruitment, handling and providing the VX nerve agent to the two accused women. US officials and South Korean intelligence believe the killing was orchestrated by Pyongyang, though Malaysia has never outright accused North Korea of complicity.
August’s ruling seemed to dash hopes that the accused would be acquitted and released on grounds of insufficient evidence, which is why the judge’s decision to discharge Aisyah this morning was widely unexpected. Doan Van Thanh, the father of the Vietnamese defendant still in custody, has said he seeks his daughter’s release “by whatever means necessary.”
The charges against Doan Thi Huong carry an automatic death penalty, though Malaysia’s new government, which took power in May, has vowed to abolish capital punishment for all crimes. Kuala Lumpur has issued a moratorium on executions until changes to the country’s capital-punishment laws are approved by Parliament.
Doan Thi Huong’s father voiced hope that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would help his daughter “return home as soon as possible” in comments to reporters made prior to Kim’s high-profile summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi last month. Pyongyang vehemently denies any involvement in Kim Jong Nam’s killing.
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.
CNN, citing a South Korean government source, reported in December that North Korean officials had informally expressed their regret to Vietnamese officials for involving one of their citizens in the killing of Jong-nam. The report, which Asia Times could not independently confirm, claimed the remarks were “not an apology and would not constitute North Korea admitting responsibility for the killing.”
North Korea diplomatic relations have been strained in Southeast Asia strained since the killing, which upset its once-cordial diplomatic ties with Malaysia. Tensions have since appeared to ease, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad saying last year that Kuala Lumpur would reopen its embassy in Pyongyang, which has reportedly not been staffed since April 2017.
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 email 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.
Kim Jong-nam’s family’s whereabouts 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.
An Internet posting by CCD on March 1 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 group, 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.