Top Asian News 3:49 a.m. GMT

SHAH ALAM, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's attorney general ordered the murder case to proceed against a Vietnamese woman accused in the killing of the North Korean leader's estranged half brother, prosecutors said in court Thursday. Prosecutor Iskandar Ahmad gave no explanation for the refusal to drop the murder charge against Doan Thi Huong, who is the only suspect in custody after the stunning decision to drop the case Monday against Indonesian Siti Aisyah. Huong's lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told the court they were disappointed with the attorney general's decision and said prosecutors were being unfair to Huong. "It does not bring confidence to our criminal justice system.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's government backtracked Wednesday on abolishing capital punishment, saying instead that the death penalty would no longer be mandatory for selected offenses. Rights groups slammed the reversal and urged it to reconsider. Deputy Law Minister Hanipa Maidin made the announcement in parliament but didn't give any reasons for the change. He was quoted by the country's Bernama news agency as saying the death penalty would not be mandatory for 11 offenses but courts would have discretion to impose such sentences for those crimes. N. Surendran, adviser to rights group Lawyers for Liberty, said it was a "complete U-turn" from the government's announcement in October that it planned to abolish the death penalty for all of the nearly three dozen offenses for which it was applicable.

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (AP) — Thailand's military-installed prime minister crooned a love song and boasted of his government's achievements Wednesday during an official visit to his home province in the northeast ahead of the March 24 election. Prayuth Chan-ocha led a 2014 coup ousting Thailand's last elected government and is seeking this time to take power through more legitimate means. He appeared before a crowd of thousands on a trip that was nominally part of his official duties. The style of the visit closely resembles what many people would consider campaigning, and he has been carrying out such activities for several months.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — After their stunning retirement announcements, two K-pop stars including a member of the superstars Big Bang are facing police questioning over a series of interlocking scandals that have roiled South Korea for weeks. Live TV footage showed solo singer Jung Joon-young arriving at a Seoul police station on Thursday where more than 100 journalists gathered to wait for appearance. Police have alleged 29-year-old Jung secretly filmed himself having sex with about 10 women and shared the footage with friends by a mobile messenger app. "I feel very sorry for causing concerns to the people and will faithfully undergo an investigation," Jung told reporters before entering the police station.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A New Zealand government minister said he was punched in the face Thursday while walking to work in an attack that's rare in a country where politicians often mingle with the public in stores, bars and sports arenas. James Shaw, the Climate Change Minister and co-leader of the Green Party, was walking past Wellington's Botanic Garden just before 8 a.m. when a man started talking to him before grabbing him and punching him several times, said Shaw's press secretary, Peter Stevens. Stevens said two people came along to help and the man jumped in a car and drove away.

NEW YORK (AP) — An international group of scientists and ethicists on Wednesday called for a temporary global ban on making babies with edited genes. It's the latest reaction to last November's announcement that gene-edited twins had been born in China, which was widely criticized. Mainstream scientists generally oppose making babies with altered DNA now, citing safety and ethical issues that must be addressed first. Such genetic changes may be passed to future generations, unlike gene editing done in parts of the body not involved in reproduction. So news last year that Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have edited DNA of embryos provoked widespread condemnation.

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The longest direct talks ever held between the United States and the Taliban concluded this week with both sides citing progress toward ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan, but many questions remain unanswered. The Taliban are negotiating from a position of strength: They effectively control half the country, and President Donald Trump has made clear he is frustrated with America's longest war and determined to bring the troops home. The two sides have reached a draft agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops — a longtime Taliban demand — and the insurgents have rebuffed U.S. efforts to get them to negotiate with the Kabul government.

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A U.S. Navy flagship has sailed through the South China Sea with its commander renewing an American vow to "sail, fly and operate wherever the law allows us to" amid China's objection to U.S. military presence in the disputed sea. Capt. Eric Anduze, commander of the USS Blue Ridge, told reporters on board the U.S. 7th Fleet's command and control ship, which anchored at Manila Bay Wednesday, that the visit was the latest affirmation of the strong U.S.-Philippine alliance. "We have a long history ... we're here to let you know that that partnership is stronger than ever," Anduze said.

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The most senior Catholic convicted of child sex abuse was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison for molesting two choirboys in an Australian cathedral in a crime the judge said showed "staggering arrogance." Cardinal George Pell must serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he is eligible for parole, according to the judge's order. The five convictions against Pell carried a maximum possible sentence of 10 years each. "In my view, your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance," Victoria state County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd said in handing down the sentence. Pope Francis' former finance minister was convicted by a unanimous jury verdict in December of orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy's 13-year-old friend in the late 1990s, months after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne.

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — An Australian judge has sentenced Cardinal George Pell to 6 years in prison on convictions of sexually abusing two choirboys in a cathedral when he was archbishop of Australia's second-largest city more than 20 years ago. A timeline of Pell's career and the criminal case: July 16, 1996: Auxiliary Bishop George Pell is appointed Archbishop of Melbourne. Within months he abuses two choir boys at St. Patrick's Cathedral. March 26, 2001: Pell becomes Archbishop of Sydney. Oct. 21, 2003: Pope John Paul II makes Pell a cardinal. Feb. 25, 2014: Pope Francis appoints Pell to the powerful position of Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.