Malaysian court set to rule in Kim Jong-nam assassination case

A Malaysian court will make its first ruling on Thursday about whether two women implicated in the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother were scapegoats of the North Korean regime or possibly cold-blooded killers. 

The high court in Selangor, western Malaysia, will either acquit Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong, 29, or call them to enter their defence in the case of the murder of Kim Jong-nam, 45, on February 13, 2017, at Kuala Lumpur international airport. 

In a plot worthy of a blockbuster spy thriller, the two young women are accused of smearing lethal VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon, on Kim’s face in the crowded terminal. They both claim they were duped into believing they were playing roles in a hidden camera TV prank show. 

On the eve of the court decision, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, Ms Huong’s lawyer told The Telegraph he was “very confident” that she would be acquitted.

Ms Siti’s lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, has expressed similar views, arguing that the prosecution’s case is purely circumstantial. 

The women are the only two suspects in custody, after four accused North Koreans fled Malaysia on the day of the killing. If the defence is called, the trial could take several more months and they face the death penalty if convicted. 

Despite this, Mr Hisyam said that his client was “hopeful and confident” of a positive outcome this week. 

“There are many aspects of evidence that speak in favour of Doan,” he said. “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 argued. 

“Number two, when she was arrested by the police, she disclosed her defence at the very first opportunity, she protested her innocence,” Mr Hisyam continued, adding that the prosecution had not rebutted the lengthy statement that she gave to the police. 

Ms Huong had been targetted by North Korean agents because she was “gullible,” said her lawyer. 

Key to the defence of the female suspects, both from impoverished backgrounds, is the argument that they were preyed upon by calculating intelligence operatives intent on exploiting their desire to improve their lives through television fame. 

Born into a poor family in northern Vietnam, her father a janitor, Ms Huong first moved to Hanoi to start a pharmacy course before dropping out. Her early dreams of being a celebrity were shattered when she was reportedly knocked out of the Vietnam Idol show after just twenty seconds. 

Ms Huong’s hopes were apparently revived when she was introduced by a former colleague to a North Korean in late December while working in a Hanoi bar. She was tested in several dry run pranks, including three at Kuala Lumpur airport, and one at a supermarket, before Mr Kim’s actual murder. 

Siti Aisyah’s life had followed a similar disappointing trajectory, from a rural Indonesian hamlet, via sweatshops in Jakarta, a bitter divorce and finally to a seedy Kuala Lumpur spa, before she was recruited, initially enticed by the offer of $100 for each practice prank. 

In an interview with the Guardian, her mother, Benah, said Ms Siti called her from prison to say “Mum this whole thing is a set up, I was tricked.”

Kim Jong-un's family tree

The last time Benah saw her only daughter was when she came home the month before the assassination and announced she was going to be a TV star. “Mum, I’m going to be an actress. I have an offer and my role is to play tricks,” said Benah, recalling her daughter’s words. 

When her daughter did finally appear on TV, it was “not how I expected,” she said. 

The prosecution maintains that the women were trained assassins, arguing that they must have been taught how to use VX, a rare and highly dangerous nerve agent. 

"We expect that the defense will be called for a simple reason: They need to explain why VX was found on them," prosecutor Wah Shaharuddin Wan Ladin told The Associated Press.

Their defence lawyers have long claimed, however, that the women are pawns in a politically motivated plot. North Korea has denied accusations by South Korean and US officials that it was behind the murder, in a suspected move to eliminate a prime threat to Kim Jong-un’s iron-fisted rule. 

In an earlier Telegraph interview, Mr Hisyam said that the absence of four North Korean suspects left a “big gap” in the prosecution’s case. On Wednesday he suggested that the murder may never be resolved.