The two defendants appeared in court with scarves wrapped around their heads, partially obscuring their faces. One of the young women spoke animatedly, hands awhirl as she bantered with her lawyers during a recess.
Her relaxed demeanor belied the charges against them. Since Oct. 2, Siti Aisyah, a 26-year-old Indonesian, and Doan Thi Huong, a 29-year-old Vietnamese, have been on trial in a Malaysian courtroom for what prosecutors consider a brazen assassination.
The court has seen the closed-circuit camera footage from Feb. 13 at the airport in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur — aired on TV worldwide — that shows the two women sidling up to a portly, middle-aged man and appearing to rub their hands in his face.
The man, who turned out to be 46-year-old Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, died shortly afterward from what an autopsy concluded was exposure to the lethal nerve agent VX.
Defense lawyers say the women, who have pleaded not guilty, were dupes in a North Korean plot to assassinate Kim Jong Nam and thought they were participating in a made-for-TV prank. Four North Korean men, whom prosecutors have called co-conspirators, remain at large after having flown out of Kuala Lumpur airport the day the women encountered Kim.
CCTV footage played in court this month showed the men entering restrooms after the poisoning and then reemerging, their clothes changed.
The grainy videos could be key to the case against the women, the only two defendants on trial in the case. They face death by hanging if convicted.
As the trial unfolds in Shah Alam, south of Kuala Lumpur, its broader repercussions are taking shape. The case has added to the pariah reputation of Kim Jong Un, who is presumed to have orchestrated his half brother’s killing for reasons that remain unclear.
If the killing was politically motivated — as defense lawyers have argued, hoping to have their clients exonerated — it represented an ominous signal that the isolated Pyongyang government could target enemies on foreign soil and might not hesitate to use a deadly toxin in a crowded public place.
It has also badly damaged North Korea’s ties with Malaysia, one of the few countries it could consider friendly.
Malaysia is one of about two dozen countries to maintain an embassy in North Korea, and until this year both governments allowed citizens to travel to the other country without visas. But after Kim Jong Nam’s death, North Korea blocked Malaysian diplomats and their families from leaving the country for six weeks until Kuala Lumpur allowed Kim’s corpse to be flown to Pyongyang.
Malaysia bowed to North Korean demands that it release three North Korean citizens who were hiding in its embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Two of the three — an embassy official and an employee with the state-owned airline Air Koryo — were seen on airport footage from Feb. 13 that was played in court this month, but Malaysian police said in March they had taken statements from the two and they were no longer needed for the investigation.
The standoff was a humiliation for Malaysia and widened the bilateral rift, analysts said.
“I doubt [the relationship] will go back to the covert and comfortable way it used to be ever again,” said Ooi Kee Beng, director of the Penang Institute, a Malaysian think tank. “Malaysia now has much to lose from it.”
Malaysia has enacted limited retaliatory measures, including a ban on its citizens traveling to North Korea and recalling its ambassador to Pyongyang.
Malaysia’s relative affluence makes it a magnet for an estimated 4 million economic migrants from Southeast Asian countries. The defendants in the poisoning case hail from rural areas of Indonesia and Vietnam, countries where per capita income is less than half of Malaysia’s.
According to defense lawyers, Aisyah and Huong did not know the identity of the man they were targeting — they thought they were merely taking part in a prank that they had spent the previous weeks rehearsing. On Feb. 13, Huong wore a shirt emblazoned with “LOL,” the big letters easily identifying her on footage that showed her approaching Kim.
The pair said they had been commissioned as actresses weeks before Kim’s death by mysterious new friends who turned out to be among the North Koreans identified in the airport footage shown in court.
The women have been described in media accounts as “entertainers” and “escorts” — euphemisms for prostitutes — seeking to make quick money by being taped carrying out “Candid Camera”-style jokes on unsuspecting passersby, for which they were paid $50 to $100 each time.
Despite their predicament, both defendants appeared focused during a recent court session. Later, at the end of the day’s proceedings, they donned protective vests to leave the courthouse.
Faces down, looking away from the TV cameras and paparazzi, they were rushed to a waiting police vehicle by masked, heavily armed police officers, to face another night in prison ahead of a return to court the following day.
Roughneen is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.