Malaysia court frees woman in North Korea murder case

M. Jegathesan
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Indonesian Siti Aisyah waves to the press after her return to Jakarta having been freed by a Malaysian court

Indonesian Siti Aisyah waves to the press after her return to Jakarta having been freed by a Malaysian court (AFP Photo/ADEK BERRY)

An Indonesian woman accused of assassinating the North Korean leader's half-brother was freed Monday after Malaysian prosecutors dropped a murder charge against her, in a shock decision that delighted her friends and family.

Siti Aisyah smiled as she was ushered into a car outside the court, where she had been on trial for a year and a half alongside a Vietnamese woman for the 2017 murder of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur airport.

"I feel happy. I did not know this will happen. I did not expect it," said the 27-year-old, who earlier hugged her tearful Vietnamese co-accused, Doan Thi Huong, in the dock when the news was announced.

Indonesian officials mounted a major diplomatic effort to free Aisyah, which included pressure from the president. The Indonesian justice minister had written to Malaysia's attorney general seeking her release, citing problems with the case, and he agreed last week.

The women had always denied murder, saying they were tricked by North Korean spies into carrying out the Cold War-style hit using VX nerve agent, and believed it was a prank for a reality TV show.

Their lawyers presented them as scapegoats, saying that authorities were unable to catch the real killers. Four North Koreans -- formally accused of the murder alongside the women -- fled Malaysia shortly after the assassination.

The trial, which began in October 2017, had been due to resume Monday with the defence stage of proceedings after a break of several months.

But at the start of the hearing at Shah Alam High Court, prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad requested that the murder charge against Aisyah be withdrawn and she be given a discharge, without providing a reason.

The judge agreed to a discharge not amounting to an acquittal, and ordered Aisyah's immediate release. This means Aisyah has not been formally cleared of the charge and could, in theory, be re-arrested.

The news was a surprise as the court had only been scheduled to hear Huong testify Monday, and the Vietnamese woman was left in shock that she was not released alongside Aisyah.

"I do not know what will happen to me now. I am innocent -- please pray for me," the 30-year-old said. Her testimony was adjourned Monday as her lawyers said they would also apply to get the charge against her dropped.

- Homecoming party -

Aisyah arrived later Monday in Jakarta, where she was reunited with parents. In her hometown of Sindangsari on Java island, there was shock and delight as word spread of her release.

"We've heard the news and we're so happy. We're getting a celebration ready!" her aunt Darmi, who goes by one name, told AFP.

Indonesia often makes concerted diplomatic efforts to free its citizens detained overseas, particularly those who may face the death penalty.

Speaking at the Indonesian embassy in Malaysia, Indonesian Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly reeled off a list of figures in government -- from President Joko Widodo to the foreign minister -- who had pushed for Aisyah's release.

A murder conviction carries a mandatory penalty of death by hanging in Malaysia. The government vowed last year to abolish capital punishment but has yet to amend the law.

There does not appear to have been any such aggressive lobbying effort from Vietnam for Huong, however.

Vietnam generally does not get publicly involved in individual criminal cases overseas, and foreign affairs officials did not respond to AFP’s request for comment Monday.

In the first stage of the trial that ran until August last year, prosecutors presented their case.

Witnesses described how the victim -- the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un and once seen as heir apparent to the North Korean leadership -- 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, and provided them with poison on the day of the murder.

South Korea has accused the North of ordering the hit, which Pyongyang denies.

Malaysia had been one of the nuclear-armed North's few allies but the assassination badly damaged ties, and led to the countries expelling each other's ambassadors.

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