A Malaysian court ruled on Thursday that the trial of two women implicated in the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, should continue.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong, 29, arrived separately at the Shah Alam court on the outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, shortly after 9am on Thursday. Both wore headscarves and armoured vests as they were escorted by heavily armed guards.
High Court Judge Azmi Ariffin said it could be inferred from evidence presented in court that there was a "well-planned conspiracy" between the two women and four North Korean suspects at large to kill Kim, 45, "systemically."
He said he "cannot rule out that this could be a political assassination" but noted there was no concrete evidence to support this. He called for them to enter their defence after reading his ruling for more than two hours. The defence phase of the trial is expected to run from November until February next year.
The pair claim they were pawns in an elaborate politically motivated murder plot hatched by North Korean agents, and were duped into believing that they were actors in a prank TV show when they smeared lethal VX nerve agent, a chemical weapon, on Kim’s face at Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13, 2017.
"Though we are disappointed with the ruling, this is not the final ruling. We are still confident," Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, Ms Huong’s lawyer told The Telegraph shortly after the court announced its decision.
He explained that the judge had found the contrast in his client’s facial expressions before and after the incident to be "suspicious" and wanted her to explain.
"Doan has chosen to give evidence…her evidence will be co-examined and tested by the prosecution and we also informed the court that Doan has got witnesses from Vietnam to come and support her," he said.
The witnesses include government officials and police officers who interviewed two people key to the defence, but who may be too "afraid" to travel to the Malaysian trial, Mr Hisyam said.
One was an ex-colleague who worked with Ms Huong in a Hanoi bar and who had introduced her to a North Korean looking for someone interested in working on short movies and video clips.
The second was a freelance producer who had previously made prank videos in which she had played a role.
However, describing the murder as something out of a James Bond movie, state prosecutors have maintained throughout the trial that the pair were well-trained assassins who knew exactly what they were doing.
The prosecution made its closing arguments in June, based on testimony from 34 witnesses.
"My gut is telling me the defence will be called," the prosecutor, Wan Shaharuddin Wan Ladin, said before the decision was announced. "The most key thing is they had VX on them and VX was shown to have killed Kim Jong-nam. So they have to explain the connection there."
The women are the only two suspects in custody, after four accused North Koreans, the alleged masterminds of the plot, who it is claimed provided them with the poison on the day of Kim’s murder before flying out of the country.
Video recordings played in court showed them meeting the four fugitives at the airport before the attack. They also show Ms Huong appearing to smear something on Kim Jong Nam’s face.
The women’s defence teams have argued that the pair, from impoverished backgrounds, were targeted and exploited as scapegoats by the North Korean regime. Pyongyang has always denied accusations by South Korean and US officials that it was behind the murder.
On the eve of the verdict, Mr Hisyam had described his client as “gullible”, arguing that the evidence presented in the trial strongly supported her claims of innocence.
“Her conduct subsequent to the event, for example. She went back to the airport two days later and no assassin would ever do that,” he said.
In Vietnam, Ms Huong’s father, Doan Van Thanh, also expressed his hope ahead of the verdict that the court would be fair.
"She’s an innocent girl and we believe the court will find the same," he told Reuters by telephone from his home in the northern province of Nam Dinh. "She was tricked, and we all know that."
Siti Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi Soon Seng has also denounced the evidence against his client as "flimsy and circumstantial" as it relied only on the security footage from the airport and the traces of VX on her.
There was no clear footage of Siti Aisyah smearing Kim’s face, only a blurry image of someone the prosecution identified as Siti Aisyah hurrying from the scene.
Ms Siti’s mother Benah told the Guardian that her daughter had called her from prison to say: “Mum this whole thing is a set up, I was tricked.”
Her daughter had believed her dreams of becoming an actress were finally coming to fruition in a reality TV show, she claimed. When Ms Siti finally appeared on TV, it was “not how I expected,” said Benah.