Updated at 4:40 p.m. ET on 2019-04-01
A Vietnamese woman accused of assassinating the half-brother of the leader of North Korea by using a lethal chemical weapon escaped the death penalty on Monday after a court reduced her murder charge to a lesser offense of causing injury through dangerous means.
Doan Thi Huong, 30, was sentenced to three years and four months after pleading guilty to the lesser charge. She was expected to be freed from jail in early May, according to her lawyers.
Doan had been charged with murder, which carries the death sentence if the defendant is found guilty.
“First of all, Ms. Doan, I must say that you are a very lucky person today. I say lucky because from a murder charge under Section 302 that comes with mandatory death penalty, the prosecution offered a charge under Section 324 with maximum sentence of only 10 years,” Judge Azmi Ariffin told the defendant.
He said she should be grateful to the attorney general and prosecutor for offering the alternative charge.
“In my view, in assessing the length of the sentence, we must take a look at the overall picture: gravity of the offense, facts of the case, presence or absence of mitigating factors, and sentences on past cases that are similar,” he said. “To strike a balance, the court hereby sentences you to three years and four months to run from the date of your arrest.”
Doan lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told reporters the defense team was pleased with the outcome.
“As far as Doan is concerned, we are happy … our calculation shows that she could be out around May 4,” he told reporters after her sentencing.
Teh expects Doan to be freed in May as all prisoners are entitled to a one-third remission.
Doan was charged together with Indonesian Siti Aisyah and four North Koreans who are still at large with killing North Korean Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with the deadly VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 on Feb. 13, 2017.
The prosecution abruptly withdrew the murder charge against Aisyah on March 11 and she was given a discharge not amounting to an acquittal. Aisyah was freed and flew back to Indonesia that same evening.
Doan’s lawyer subsequently requested a similar discharge but was rejected. On Monday, the court granted Doan’s request for a lesser charge.
“And (the) attorney general has reconsidered our representation to offer an alternative charge, and we are happy with that. With reference to the new charge, she is alleged to have caused injury to Kim Chol using a weapon, and she admitted to that,” Hisyam added, referring Kim Jong Nam by the name on his passport.
Her father, Doan Van Thanh, attended the hearing and said he was pleased by the outcome.
“I hope that my daughter will be released in one month and I am very happy and I want to express my sincere thanks to the ambassador and lawyers here,” he told reporters through an interpreter.
Le Quy Quynh, the Vietnamese ambassador to Malaysia, expressed his appreciation for the lesser charge.
“I am highly appreciative that she will be released very soon, but I want to emphasize she is a victim like Siti,” Le said.
‘She is a victim’
There was no immediate explanation for why Malaysian prosecutors accepted a lesser charge for an assault with a banned chemical weapon that resulted in death, although her lawyers continued to maintain she did not know what the substance was.
The alternative charge sheet states that “you with four other people still at large, on 13 February 2017 around 9 in the morning … intentionally caused injury to Kim Chol using a substance dangerous to the body when inserted in the bloodstream ie liquid poison VX.”
Wearing a pink baju kurung, the Malay traditional dress for women, Doan looked happy and lively, in sharp contrast to her last court appearance where she was pale and distraught.
Asked what she wanted to do after she is freed, Doan told reporters as she was led out of the courtroom: “I want to sing and act.”
Her lawyers maintained that she had been used as a pawn by North Koreans who told her to smear the face of her victim as part of a reality TV prank show.
They said the North Koreans who fled Malaysia shortly after the killing and remain at large, must be brought to trial.
“Our opinion is that the four North Koreans must be brought to justice. And I think the law allows for them to be tried in absence,” The said. “Until and unless the four North Koreans are brought to justice, we cannot say justice is served.”
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the decision not to charge the two women with murder likely marked the end of the case, the Associated Press reported.
“This is pretty much the end as the real culprits are apparently hiding behind the veil of diplomatic immunity and state-sponsored sanctuary,” Oh said.