SHAH ALAM, Malaysia — Malaysia’s high-profile trial of two women accused of killing the estranged half brother of North Korean leader has gone into recess until next year.
Indonesia’s Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnam’s Doan Thi Huong, 29, are accused of smearing a nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13. The two are the only suspects in custody, though prosecutors have said four North Koreans who have since fled the country were also involved.
Prosecutors have focused on proving the women’s guilt but shied away from scrutinizing any political motive behind the killing. Defense lawyers, who say their clients were duped into carrying out the attack, will look to shift that focus when the trial resumes Jan. 22.
Here’s a look at what’s been presented in court since the trial began two months ago.
Kim Jong Nam was seen on airport security camera footage as he was approached by two women, who appear to smear something on his face. Footage showed Kim gesturing for help before he suffered seizures. He was dead within two hours.
Kim was carrying four diplomatic passports that identified him as Kim Chol, aged 46.
An autopsy showed the banned VX nerve agent was found on Kim’s face and in his eyes, blood, urine, clothing and bag. His organs were damaged, including part of his brain, both lungs, his liver and spleen. Doctors concluded the cause of his death was “acute VX nerve agent poisoning,” and ruled out contributing factors.
Police testified Kim was carrying eight international currencies, including $124,000. He also carried a drug known to be an antidote for nerve agents.
It is known that Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding, had been living abroad for years after falling out of favor. It is thought that he could have been seen as a threat to his brother Kim Jong Un’s rule.
The two young women face the death penalty if convicted, but under Malaysian law they can’t be sentenced to die if they didn’t have intent to kill. That is their defense.
The court has heard that traces of VX were found on the women’s clothing as well as on Huong’s fingernails. A government chemist testified that VX was a “strategic” choice of poison because it doesn’t evaporate quickly and a victim could be targeted without affecting the surroundings.
The chemist told the court that rubbing VX on a person’s eye would be the fastest way to kill because the eyes have no barrier like the skin. He said the palm is the least sensitive area and VX can be washed from the hand within 15 minutes of exposure — which could explain why the women weren’t affected.
Prosecutors contend the women knew they were handling poison and deliberately rushed to wash their hands after the attack. Security camera footage shows both holding their hands away from their bodies as they rush to separate restrooms.
Defense lawyers argued that the women didn’t flee the country nor discard their clothing, indicating they didn’t know they were handling poison. Furthermore, they point to the women’s contention that they thought they were playing a prank for a hidden camera show.
The defense says the men who hired the women for the prank show were actually North Korean agents who fled the country after the attack. North Korea has denied any involvement.
THE NORTH KOREANS
Police have told the court that several North Korean men helped plot the attack, including a man one of the women says hired her to stage pranks. The four men left Malaysia on the day of the killing.
A police investigator identified the four as Hong Song Hac, Ri Ji Hyon, Ri Jae Nam and O Jong Gil. On Malaysia’s request, Interpol has issued arrest warrant for the men, who are believed to be back in Pyongyang, but North Korea is not a member of the organization.
Airport security footage played in the courtroom showed all four discarding their belongings and changing their outfits after the attack. They were then seen meeting North Korean Embassy official Hyong Kwang Song and Air Koryo official Kim Uk-Il in another part of the airport before flying out of the country.
The embassy and Air Koryo officials have told police it was their duty to assist North Korean citizens leaving the country. Those two and another North Korean police were seeking to question were allowed to leave the country in the days after the killing in exchange for the release of nine Malaysians stuck in Pyongyang.
The court heard that Hong Song Hac was the mastermind who orchestrated the operation on the ground.
When the trial resumes, defense lawyers will look to shift the focus onto the North Koreans.
Malaysian officials have never officially accused Pyongyang of involvement in Kim’s death and they have made it clear they don’t want the trial politicized.
The defense will start with the cross examination of the chief police investigator, whom they have described as the most important witness.
They are expected to question him about the role of North Korean chemist Ri Jong Chol, who was detained shortly after the killing but released due to lack of evidence and deported. Defense lawyers said Ri, who had used a North Korean Embassy car since 2015, was a key suspect as his house could have been where the nerve agent used in the killing was made.
Prosecutors have about a dozen more minor witnesses to call before they are expected to rest their case in March. The judge could then make a ruling by the second quarter of 2018.
If the judge finds there is no case against the women, they will be freed. If he rules otherwise, the defense will be called and the trial will continue for several more months.