PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS) - A court in Malaysia decided on Thursday (Aug 16) to continue hearing a case against two women charged with the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The judge decided that there is sufficient evidence against the suspects, and asked them to enter their defence.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong could face the death penalty on charges of murdering Mr Kim by smearing his face with VX, a nerve agent banned by the United Nations, at a Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb 13, 2017.
"The prosecution had made out a prima facie case against the accused persons and I must therefore call upon them to enter their defence on their respective charges," said Shah Alam High Court judge Azmi Ariffin.
"I cannot rule out that this could be a political assassination... Despite that, I am unable to confirm this fact," he added.
The women will take the stand between November and February next year, the court has scheduled.
The women, both in their 20s, are the only suspects in custody and have pleaded not guilty, saying they thought they were involved in a prank for a reality TV show. Four North Koreans also charged in the killing have fled Malaysia.
The prosecution made closing arguments in June at a court on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital, based on testimony from 34 witnesses.
"My gut is telling me the defence will be called," prosecutor Wan Shaharuddin Wan Ladin said earlier before the ruling was issued.
"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."
Expert witnesses testified that traces of VX were found on the clothing of both women. Video recordings played in court showed them meeting the four fugitives at the airport before the attack. They also show Huong appearing to smear something on Mr Kim's face.
Defence lawyers say the killing was politically motivated, with many key suspects linked to the North Korean embassy in the Malaysian capital, suggesting the women were simply pawns.
Siti Aisyah's lawyer Gooi Soon Seng has called the evidence against his client "flimsy and circumstantial", as it relied only on the security footage and the traces of VX on her.
There was no clear footage of Siti Aisyah smearing Mr Kim's face. The recordings show only a blurry image of someone the prosecution identified as Siti Aisyah hurrying from the scene.
Huong's lawyer Hisyam Teh said his client's conduct after the incident was that of an innocent person, citing CCTV recordings which showed her returning to the scene of the crime two days later, when she was arrested.
"We are very confident that tomorrow justice will be served," Mr Hisyam told Reuters, adding that his client had been consistent and cooperative in her police statements. "The judge cannot ignore the evidence before him."
Pyongyang has denied accusations by South Korean and United States officials that Mr Kim Jong Un's regime was behind the killing.