A Vietnamese woman suspected of assassinating the North Korean leader’s half-brother lost her bid for immediate release Thursday as Malaysian authorities refused to drop a murder charge, days after her Indonesian co-accused was freed.
Doan Thi Huong broke down in tears as a prosecutor announced the attorney-general had rejected a request to free her and her trial would continue. She has been on trial for a year and a half over the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur airport.
On Monday a murder charge was unexpectedly withdrawn against the Indonesian woman accused alongside her, Siti Aisyah, raising hopes that Huong might also be freed imminently.
The Vietnamese defendant, who had to be helped out of court by two police officers following the shock announcement, tearfully told reporters: “I am depressed. I am innocent… I want my family to pray for me.”
Huong’s lawyer said he would make a second bid to get the charge against her dropped, and said failing to free her following Aisyah’s release “does not bring confidence to our criminal justice system”.
The pair had always denied murder, saying they were tricked by North Korean spies into carrying out the Cold War-style hit that shocked the world using a highly toxic nerve agent, and believed it was a prank for a reality TV show.
Their lawyers presented them as scapegoats and said the real killers were four North Koreans, who were suspected of being the masterminds behind the plot but fled Malaysia shortly after the assassination.
The prosecutor did not give any reason why charges were not being dropped for Huong, 30, who is now the sole defendant on trial for Kim’s murder and could face death by hanging if convicted.
Indonesia had mounted a sustained diplomatic offensive to get Aisyah freed, while Vietnam had only stepped up pressure since the Indonesian woman’s release this week.
During the trial, the court was shown airport CCTV footage showing Huong approaching Kim, placing her hands on his face and then running away. Aisyah was only seen as a blurred figure fleeing the scene of the crime.
The trial began in October 2017 but there had been no hearings since August last year when the prosecution finished presenting its case.
Proceedings were scheduled to resume Monday with Huong testifying — but the unexpected release of Aisyah led to the trial being adjourned so the Vietnamese suspect could also seek her freedom.
But on Thursday, lead prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad told the High Court in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, that the attorney-general had ordered the case against Huong to proceed.
The judge said Huong was not well enough to continue with the trial on Thursday, and adjourned proceedings until April 1.
Huong’s lawyer said that “the public prosecutor has not acted fairly to Doan.”
“Both the accused have said they were made scapegoats by North Korea, both of them said they were doing video pranks — very obviously there is discrimination,” added Hisyam Teh Poh Teik.
A murder conviction carries a mandatory penalty of death by hanging in Malaysia. The government vowed last year to scrap capital punishment but has indicated recently it may water down the plan and only do away with the mandatory death penalty.
Vietnam had increased pressure on Malaysia to release Huong since Aisyah was freed, with the country’s foreign minister this week pressing his Malaysian counterpart on the issue and the justice minister writing to the attorney-general.
In the first stage of the trial that ran until August last year, prosecutors presented their case.
Witnesses described how the victim — who was once seen as heir apparent to the North Korean leadership until he fell out of favor — died in agony shortly after being attacked.
Prosecutors said Aisyah and Huong were well-trained assassins but their lawyers argued the four North Koreans were the masterminds.
South Korea has accused the North of ordering the hit, which Pyongyang denies.