KUALA LUMPUR, March 1 (Reuters) – Malaysia on Wednesday charged two women – an Indonesian and a Vietnamese – with murdering the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader in an assassination using a super-toxic nerve agent that killed in minutes.
Siti Aishah, a 25-year-old mother of one from Jakarta, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, from rural northern Vietnam, could be hanged if they are convicted for the killing of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13.
Police brought the two women to court handcuffed and wearing bullet-proof vests. No plea was recorded after the charges were read out against them.
Aishah and Huong have told diplomats who visited them in custody that they were unwitting pawns in an assassination that U.S. officials and South Korean intelligence have said was organised by North Korean agents.
Huong’s lawyer told reporters outside the court that his client had told him she was innocent.
“She denied. She denied. She said ‘I’m innocent’,” Selvam Shanmugam said.
“Of course, she’s definitely distressed because she is facing death penalty,” he added.
The next court date will be on April 13, when prosecutors will apply for the accused to be tried jointly.
Kim Jong Nam, who had criticised the regime of his family and his half-brother Kim Jong Un, died after the two women allegedly smeared VX nerve agent, a chemical described by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction, across his face.
He was killed while waiting to catch a flight to Macau, the Chinese territory where he had been living under Beijing’s protection since going into exile several years ago.
The charges against Aishah were read first, followed by those against Huong.
According to the charges the women and four unnamed people, who are still at large, were at the departure hall of the airport, with intention to murder the North Korean citizen.
One North Korean man, identified by police as Ri Jong Chol, is still in police custody and has not been charged yet. Police have identified seven other North Koreans wanted in connection with the case, including an embassy official in Kuala Lumpur.
Amid a growing diplomatic row, a high level North Korean delegation arrived in the Malaysian capital on Tuesday to press for the release of citizen in custody, and for the body to be handed over.
North Korea maintains the victim is a North Korean citizen, but has not acknowledged he is the half brother of its leader Kim Jong Un.
Security camera footage, which has been broadcast in the media, showed two women assaulting Kim Jong Nam at the airport around 20 minutes before he died.
Both women have told diplomats from their countries that they had been paid to take part in what they believed was a prank for a reality television show. Indonesian diplomats said Aishah told them she was paid around $90 by whoever tricked her into taking part.
Malaysian police have said the suspects had washed their hands after the assault, and were aware that the liquid smeared on their victim’s face was toxic.
Aishah’s lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng was granted a gag order to restrain police and potential witnesses from making public statements that may incriminate his client.
Huong was detained 48 hours after the murder in the same airport terminal where Kim Jong Nam was killed.
She is believed to be the woman wearing a white shirt emblazoned with the acronym “LOL”, whose image was caught on security cameras while waiting for a taxi after the attack.
Aishah was caught a day later. She suffered a bout of vomiting while in custody that police have said was a side-effect of exposure to the VX. Indonesian diplomats who visited her subsequently said she was in good health.
Aishah was the first in the dock. Her head framed by long dark hair, and wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Aishah indicated that she understood the charges against her, and nodded to Indonesian embassy officials as she left the courtroom.
Huong, was brought out separately. In court, she wore a yellow shirt and blue jeans, and her wavy hair was dyed blonde.
Speaking in Jakarta, Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir hoped Aishah would receive a fair trial.
“We hope that she gets a fair trial, afforded all her legal rights and not tried by the public,” Nasir said.