KUALA LUMPUR • Two women charged with murdering the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un must answer for their role in a well-planned conspiracy, a Malaysian judge said yesterday, but added that the evidence did not prove a political assassination.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, a Vietnamese, face the death penalty on charges of murdering Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX, a nerve agent banned by the United Nations, at a Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb 13 last year.
The murder was a "well-planned conspiracy between the women and the four North Koreans at large", trial judge Azmi Ariffin said in a ruling that took more than two hours to read.
"I must, therefore, call upon them to enter their defence."
He added: "I cannot rule out that this could be a political assassination. Despite that, I am unable to confirm this fact."
The court has set dates for the women to take the stand between November and next February.
Both women arrived in court handcuffed and wearing bulletproof vests, escorted by gun-wielding policemen.
The murder was a "well-planned conspiracy between the women and the four North Koreans at large", trial judge Azmi Ariffin said in a ruling that took more than two hours to read. "I must, therefore, call upon them to enter their defence." He added: "I cannot rule out that this could be a political assassination. Despite that, I am unable to confirm this fact."
They are in their 20s and both have pleaded not guilty, saying they thought they were involved in a prank for a reality TV show.
However, Datuk Azmi said he was not persuaded by the defence argument, since there was no hidden crew and no attempt to let the target in on the joke afterwards, as is usual in such shows.
Huong did not react to the ruling, but Siti Aisyah burst into tears and had to be comforted by her lawyers and officials of the Indonesian embassy.
Her lawyer, Mr Gooi Soon Seng, expressed surprise at the decision. "We are still very confident that we have a good defence," he added. "It does not mean they are found guilty, it just means that he (the judge) found that the prosecution has proven there is a prima facie case."
Huong's lawyers also said they did not expect the ruling.
Defence lawyers said 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.
But the judge said the women's conduct before and after the attack supported a case against them, citing closed-circuit TV recordings of their meeting with other North Korean suspects and going to an airport bathroom to wash their hands immediately after the VX attack.
Mr Kim Jong Nam, who was living in exile in Macau, had criticised his family's dynastic rule of North Korea, and his brother had ordered his execution, South Korean lawmakers have said. Pyongyang has denied accusations by South Korean and United States officials that Mr Kim Jong Un's regime was behind the killing.
Key events in the saga
Mr Kim Jong Nam dies after being attacked at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb 13 last year.
Malaysian detectives track down two women - one Vietnamese and one Indonesian - seen on closed-circuit television carrying out the attack. The women say they were paid to carry out what they thought was a prank for a reality TV show.
An autopsy reveals Mr Kim died from exposure to the VX nerve agent, classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
Kuala Lumpur arrests North Korean citizen Ri Jong Chol. Over the following days, investigators seek North Korean diplomats and airline employees for questioning. All of them are holed up at the North Korean Embassy or have already left the country.
Pyongyang insists the dead man was called Kim Chol and demands his body be returned.
Malaysia cancels a visa-free travel deal with North Korea and deports North Korea's ambassador. Pyongyang expels Malaysia's envoy.
North Korea bans all Malaysians from leaving Pyongyang and Malaysia retaliates.
In early March, Mr Ri is released and deported.
At the end of the month, Malaysia's then Prime Minister Najib Razak announces an agreement has been reached to return the body to North Korea. Nine Malaysians stuck in Pyongyang are free to leave and North Koreans in Kuala Lumpur are allowed to go home.
In October, the two women go on trial for the murder. Four men formally accused on a charge sheet of plotting with the women to murder Mr Kim are identified by a police officer as North Koreans who fled Malaysia immediately after the assassination. The women's lawyers insist they are the real masterminds.