World & Nation

Murder charge dropped for suspect in Kim Jong Nam killing

Doan Thi Huong
Doan Thi Huong was accused in the slaying of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother. After pleading guilty to a lesser offense, she could go free as soon as next month.
(Vincent Thian / Associated Press)

Two years after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was killed, a Malaysian court on Monday dropped the murder charge against the only suspect still in custody, and she pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was expected to be released soon.

The move to reduce the charge against the Vietnamese woman, Doan Thi Huong, came three weeks after an even more stunning development in the case: Prosecutors unexpectedly dropped the murder charge against Huong’s Indonesian co-defendant and immediately freed her.

The two women had been the only suspects in custody after four North Korean suspects fled Malaysia following the killing of Kim Jong Nam in a Kuala Lumpur airport terminal on the morning of Feb. 13, 2017.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the decision not to prosecute the two women on murder charges likely marked the end of the case.

“This is pretty much the end,” Oh said, “as the real culprits are apparently hiding behind the veil of diplomatic immunity and state-sponsored sanctuary.”

Huong and the Indonesian woman, Siti Aisyah, said they thought they were participating in a prank for a TV show and did not know they actually were taking part in a high-profile slaying. The two were arrested and accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim’s face.

Kim Jong Nam
Kim Jong Nam, shown in May 2001, was the exiled half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
(Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press)

Kim was the eldest son in the current generation of North Korea’s ruling family. He had been living abroad for years but could have been seen as a threat to Kim Jong Un’s rule.

Lawyers for the women previously said the two were pawns in a political assassination with clear links to North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur and that the prosecution had failed to show the women had any intention to kill. Intent to kill is crucial to a murder charge under Malaysian law.

Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea and have made it clear they don’t want the trial politicized.

The murder charge the women faced carried the death penalty if they were convicted. Huong nodded Monday as a translator read the new charge to her: voluntarily causing injury with a dangerous weapon, VX nerve agent.

Oh said he believed it was a “friendly gesture to Vietnam while paying due respect to the judicial process.” Although Huong may not have had any premeditated intent to kill Kim, he said, she did apply the VX on his face and had to account for it.

High Court Judge Azmi Ariffin sentenced Huong to three years and four months in prison from the day she was arrested on Feb. 15, 2017. Huong’s lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik said his client was expected to be freed by the first week of May, after a one-third reduction in her sentence for good behavior.

“I am happy,” Huong, 30, told reporters as she left the courtroom, adding that she thought it was a fair outcome.

While handing out a jail term short of the maximum 10 years the new charge carried, the judge told Huong she was “very, very lucky” and wished her “all the best.” Vietnamese officials in the courtroom cheered when the decision was announced.

The move follows the Malaysian attorney general’s decision to drop the murder case against Aisyah on March 11 following high-level lobbying from Indonesia’s government. Huong sought to be acquitted after Aisyah was freed, but prosecutors rejected her request.

Prosecutor Iskandar Ahmad told the court the attorney general offered the reduced charge to Huong following pleas from the Vietnamese government and her lawyers.

The original charge had alleged that the two women colluded with four North Koreans to murder Kim with VX nerve agent as he passed through the airport.

A high court judge last August found there was enough evidence to infer that Aisyah, Huong and the four North Koreans engaged in a “well-planned conspiracy” to kill Kim and called on the two women to present their defense.

Huong’s lawyer told the court Monday that her guilty plea to the lesser charge showed she had “taken responsibility” for her actions. In asking for a lenient sentence, he also told the court that her move saved judicial time.

Hisyam had urged the judge to take into account Huong’s honesty, her acceptance of responsibility and the acquittal of her co-defendant. “She is neither a criminal nor has the propensity to commit a crime,” the lawyer said.

Huong, the youngest of five children, has a promising future with a degree in accounting, he said, but she is “naive and gullible.”

Hisyam said the four North Korean suspects still at large were the “real assassins.”

They “exploited her weakness and manipulated her to carry out their evil designs under the camouflage of funny videos and pranks,” he said.

As Huong was being escorted out of the court building, she shouted to reporters: “It’s very good. I love you.” She told reporters earlier that she wanted to “sing and act” when she returned to Vietnam.