Updated at 4:12 p.m. ET on 2019-03-14
A Vietnamese woman accused of murdering Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader, saw her bid for freedom dashed Thursday when Malaysia’s attorney-general rejected her application for an immediate acquittal, her lawyers said.
Doan Thi Huong, 30, had filed for an acquittal Monday following the unexpected dropping of charges earlier that day against her co-defendant, Indonesian Siti Aisyah, who returned to her home country right after Malaysian authorities released her from custody.
“We are obviously disappointed with the decision of the AG (Attorney-General) not to withdraw the charge in Doan’s case,” defense attorney Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told the Shah Alam High Court near Kuala Lumpur.
In Vietnam, Doan’s father, Doan Van Thanh, said the ruling had saddened the entire family, after the release of Siti Aisyah had raised their hopes.
“The whole extended family was expecting Huong to be freed and sent home, but that was not the decision, so we are very sad,” he told the Vietnamese Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister news service of BenarNews, from northern Nam Dinh province.
“We expect the government’s assistance so that Huong can soon be home. After the Indonesian suspect was freed, Nam Dinh Police came to us saying that we should rest assured over her case.”
No reason was given for the decision by Attorney-General Tommy Thomas to reject Doan’s application for immediate acquittal and release as a suspect in the February 2017 assassination by poisoning of Kim, the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, at a Kuala Lumpur airport.
As of late Thursday night (local time), the Attorney-General’s Chamber had not issued a statement about the decision in Doan’s case. Officials there did not respond promptly to requests from BenarNews to confirm the information as relayed by her defense team.
Describing the decision not to withdraw the charge as “perverse,” Teh accused the attorney-general of favoring one party over the other.
“[The] AG has not acted fairly. Our rights under the Federal Constitution have been violated,” Teh said, adding that both of the defendants had “been charged with the same offense.”
Doan, who looked pale and exhausted in the courtroom, broke down and cried following the ruling.
Doan and Siti Aisyah were charged with assassinating Kim Jong Nam by accosting him and smearing his face with VX nerve agent, a banned lethal chemical weapon, in the departures terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.
Teh asked for an adjournment, saying that Doan was in no state to testify in her defense because she was depressed and felt ill.
“The accused has not been feeling well. Doan has not been sleeping well since March 11. She slept one hour per night,” Teh said.
Judge Azmin Ariffin accepted Teh’s request and adjourned the case to 9 a.m. on April 1.
“I am allowing this on humanitarian grounds,” the judge said.
After the court hearing, Teh told reporters that the adjournment was also intended to allow time for the Vietnamese government to speak to the Malaysian government.
“We hope the Vietnamese government will put further and greater pressure on the Malaysian government to ensure there is equality,” The told reporters.
Two days earlier, Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh had called his Malaysian counterpart to ask that Doan be released as well, according to Vietnamese state media.
After Thursday’s hearing, Le Quy Quynh, the Vietnamese ambassador to Malaysia, briefly told reporters at the courthouse that he was “disappointed” with the decision.
In Hanoi, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs aired its displeasure with the Malaysian move.
Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung “expressed disappointment about Malaysian prosecutors’ decision to reject #Vietnam’s request to free #DoanThiHuong” during a meeting in the Vietnamese capital on Thursday with Malaysia’s ambassador, Zamruni Khalid, the ministry said via Twitter.
Lawyers for both women had asserted both made scapegoats in the assassination, alleging that North Korean agents had lured them into the plot to kill Kim by making them believe they were taking part in a prank for a reality show.
Four North Koreans who fled Malaysia shortly after the murder were identified by police as suspects. An Interpol red notice alert has been placed on the four men.
In late March 2017, the body of Kim, who lived in Macau, was eventually returned to North Korea despite weeks of diplomatic feuding between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang over his killing. His body was repatriated in exchange for nine Malaysian embassy officials and their families who were stuck in the North Korean capital for six weeks amid the wrangling.
Two other North Korean nationals, whom Malaysian police had identified as persons of interest in the investigation, were on the same commercial flight that carried Kim’s body out of Malaysia.
“In the case of Doan, she is completely innocent and she is a scapegoat, same as Siti Aisyah. We ran the same defense that they have no knowledge, no intention to kill, a scapegoat. If Siti Aisyah could be released, why not Doan?” The said.
Asked about traces of VX nerve agent that were found under her fingernails, Teh said Doan had no knowledge that the liquid substance on her palm was the internationally banned chemical.
Ruling coalition MP questions move
Meanwhile, lawmaker Ramkarpal Singh from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is a member of Malaysia’s ruling coalition, questioned the AG’s move in the Doan case.
“No doubt, the AG has the power to discontinue proceedings against Siti Aisyah the way he did but why did he not do the same in the case of Doan?” Ramkarpal said in a statement Thursday.
“As the AG need not give reasons for his decision, Doan will never know why she was treated differently from Siti Aisyah. If she is convicted, she will always wonder if Siti Aisyah was equally culpable,” Ramkarpal said.
He said the AG’s discretion ought to be open to question, particularly when a person’s life was at stake.
Doan would face the death penalty if convicted of murdering Kim Jong Nam.
“I am of the view that the charge against Doan ought to have been dropped the same way it was dropped against Siti Aisyah if the AG was of the view that North Korea had a hand in Jong Nam’s murder,” Ramkarpal said.
“Subjecting Doan to further prosecution and not her co-accused, particularly when a prima facie case has been found against both of them is, with respect, unprecedented and regrettable,” Ramkarpal added.