Kim Jong Nam trial: Lawyers must mount defense

Timeline: Trump’s handling of North Korea
TV Asahi via CNN
Feb. 14, 2017: Alleged North Korean agents reportedly murdered Kim Jong Un's half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) with VX nerve agent.

Two women charged with murdering Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will remain in custody as their lawyers mount a defense against the prosecution’s claims.

Judge Azmi Ariffin ruled Thursday at the Shah Alam High Court outside the capital of Kuala Lumpur that the prosecution had presented enough evidence for the case against Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong to move forward. Had the judge ruled in favor of the women, they could have been acquitted and freed.

Kim Jong Nam died in February last year after Aisyah and Doan allegedly wiped his face with the highly lethal nerve agent VX at an airport in Kuala Lumpur.

The prosecution alleges the pair had a key role in a finely choreographed assassination plot, but the defense has maintained the women were tricked into committing murder under the guise of staging pranks for a television show.

If found guilty, the Aisyah and Doan could face the death penalty.

Lawyers for both women maintain were duped by a group of North Koreans, four of whom have been charged in relation to Kim’s murder but have since left the country.

Doan, who is from Vietnam, and Aisyah, an Indonesian national, have been described by friends and family as simple, well-meaning women who had expressed interest in acting jobs.

Speaking to CNN after Thursday’s verdict, Aisyah’s father Asria maintained that his daughter was tricked and called upon the government of Indonesia to do more to secure her release.

“She was framed. I asked her and she doesn’t know what really happened,” Asria said.

The lawyers for both Aisyah and Doan said their clients will take the stand to defend themselves once the trial resumes later this year. It will be the first time either of them has spoken publicly about the killing. Siti’s hearing will begin in November and Doan’s next year.

“I pray for my daughter’s safety. I hope she is protected by God the Almighty. I hope she is given strength and patience.”

Prosecutors say Aisyah and Huong knew what they were doing and intended to kill Kim, who had been living in self-imposed exile in the Chinese enclave of Macau for more than a decade after falling from grace in his home country.

The killing took place more than five years after Kim Jong Un took power, when tensions between North Korea and the international community were high. Pyongyang was ramping up efforts to develop nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles to deliver them to targets as far away as the US mainland.

But the trial of Kim’s alleged murderers has taken place against the backdrop of rapprochement between Pyongyang and Washington and a charm offensive by Kim Jong Un, who has embraced the role of a globe-trotting statesman.

A ‘thorough study’

Defense lawyers had relied heavily on the argument that the women thought they were participating in a prank TV show, and were paid for earlier pranks as part of the job.

But Ariffin rejected that argument in his Thursday decision, which took more than two hours to read — an unusually long amount of time.

After conducting what he called a “thorough study” of pranks, Ariffin determined Siti and Doan’s actions did not constitute a “prank” and ordered their lawyers to explain their actions.

The judge said it was plausible that Doan may have not known that she had VX on her hands, but said the fact that she rushed to the bathroom after being caught on camera smearing Kim Jong Nam’s face was “very strange.”

Prosecutors pointed to Doan’s behavior after the incident as a key piece of evidence, arguing she raced to wash her hands because she knew there was a dangerous substance on them. Doan’s lawyers say otherwise, and point to the fact that she did not change her clothing to support the argument that she did not know how dangerous the substance was.

Ariffin said he believed the prosecution provided sufficient evidence in court to prove that Kim was killed by VX. However, he suggested the prosecution’s case had been weakened by its sole reliance on security footage and its failure to call any witnesses to the stand.

Earlier in the court, Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi Soon Seng had criticized his counterparts for only presenting security footage in edited parts during the trial. He also castigated investigators for failing to preserve original copies of the security footage as evidence shortly after his client’s arrest.