When Indonesian Siti Aisyah was brought to the Sepang court to be charged for the murder of North Korean Kim Jong Nam two years ago, she was flanked by four Malaysian lawyers appointed by the Indonesian embassy.
Senior Indonesian diplomats were at the courthouse and spoke openly with the press.
From the start, Aisyah had the Indonesian government looking out for her.
“I was appointed to represent Siti from day one,” lawyer Gooi Soon Seng told BenarNews.
In contrast, co-accused Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong cut a lonely figure. A lone Malaysian lawyer volunteered to represent her.
It was almost two months before the Vietnamese Bar Federation, a non-government organization, paid for a team of lawyers to represent Doan. The Vietnamese government did not get involved in bringing in legal counsel and has largely remained silent as the case progressed.
Meanwhile, the publicity surrounding Aisyah made her a cause celebre in her own country, where segments of the public believed her defense that she was a pawn in the killing of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Aisyah and Doan 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 on Feb. 13, 2017. Both defendants claimed they believed they were taking part in a prank for a reality TV show.
When the prosecution unexpectedly withdrew the murder charge against Aisyah and freed her on March 11, the Indonesian government described her release as a culmination of a long diplomatic effort directed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who even discussed the case with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during his visit to Bogor in June 2018.
Malaysian Attorney General Tommy Thomas gave no reason for releasing Aisyah, but he told a senior Indonesian official that his decision in the matter took “into account the good relations between our respective countries.”
Asked a day later if negotiations had helped secure Aisyah’s release, Mahathir demurred, telling reporters, “I do not have such information.”
Yacht, detained Malaysians returned
In August 2018, the Indonesian government returned to Malaysian authorities a yacht valued at U.S. $250 million linked to a corruption scandal involving the beleaguered state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The Equanimity was impounded by Indonesia in Bali in early 2018 at the request of U.S. authorities as part of a multi-billion-dollar corruption investigation related to 1MDB. The Malaysian government is trying to sell it to recoup some of the losses tied to 1MDB.
A day before Aisyah was freed, 16 Malaysians who had been detained in Indonesia for two months for violating tourist visas by conducting commercial activities in Sumatra were reportedly released.
Her lawyer spelled out the reasons for dismissing the case against her.
“There was no direct evidence that she applied anything on Kim Jong Nam. No evidence. The CCTV did not show that she did the act to the effect that she applied anything on the face of Kim Jong Nam. What was purely found was traces of the degrading product of VX,” said Gooi, the lawyer, referring to traces of the banned nerve agent found on her clothes.
In Indonesia, analysts said Aisyah’s release could have a positive impact on Jokowi’s bid to win a second term on April 17. With less than a month to go before general and presidential elections, Jokowi needs success stories to boost his chances.
“Siti’s release has a very positive impact for Jokowi in his election campaign as the issue of workers, both domestic and foreign, is a very sensitive issue,” Denny JA, head of the Indonesia Survey Circle, told BenarNews in a phone interview.
“Her release gives the impression that he is able to protect the welfare of Indonesian workers in Malaysia. It also shows he has strong leadership, that he will ceaselessly fight for the rights of workers overseas until he could free Siti from a very heavy sentence,” Denny said.
Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, a political science lecturer at Surabaya’s Airlangga University, said Indonesian migrant workers were an important bloc.
“The number of overseas workers as of 2017 numbered 9 million, out of which 55 percent are in Malaysia, 13 percent in Saudi Arabia and 10 percent in Hong Kong/China, China, Taipei and others,” he said. “One needs to consider, not only the possibility of the workers giving their support to Jokowi, but also their immediate families who will have a positive perception toward him because of this action.”
‘Little or nothing’
The man described as Malaysia’s foremost constitutional law expert, Shad Saleem Faruqi of the University of Malaya, said the withdrawal of Aisyah’s murder charge was not without precedent – even as Doan’s lawyers decried it as unfair.
“I do not think it is unprecedented because in so many prosecutions there are a number of people that are accused and against some the charges are dropped, against others they are pursued,” Shad told BenarNews. “But certainly in a criminal case, we should not be playing to the gallery, whatever the international expectation may be.”
“He (Thomas) does not need to give a reason on the present state of the law, but as a matter of good practice and because this is an international case, perhaps he should give some reason why this case has taken a very interesting turn.”
Doan was in court March 11 to expecting begin her defense when the trial ground to a halt after prosecutors announced they were dropping charges against her co-defendant.
Doan’s legal team asked that charges against her be withdrawn as well – a request denied three days later. Disappointed, Doan broke down and cried. Her lawyers asked for an adjournment as she was in no condition to testify. The trial is now scheduled to resume April 1.
Doan underwent a medical and physical examination on March 15 and remains in custody.
Vietnamese expatriates living in Kuala Lumpur were downcast.
“Many of us are upset. We feel that the government has done little or nothing to help Doan. We feel very sorry for her,” a Vietnamese professional working in Kuala Lumpur told Benar News.
The release of Doan’s co-defendant drew cries of unfairness from her lawyers.
“The AG [attorney general] has not acted fairly. We ran the same defense, that they have no knowledge, no intention to kill, they are a scapegoat. If Siti Aisyah could be released, why not Doan?” lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik said.