, Shah Alam, Malaysia, Oct 2 – Two women pleaded not guilty Monday to murdering the half-brother of North Korea’s leader at the start of their trial in Malaysia, as prosecutors alleged they practised for the assassination before carrying it out.
The trial heard dramatic testimony from a doctor who described the agonising final moments of Kim Jong-Nam’s life after he was attacked with a deadly nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong were arrested just days after the killing of Kim on February 13 as he waited to board a plane to Macau.
The women are accused of rubbing toxic VX, a chemical so deadly it is listed as a weapon of mass destruction, on his face.
Kim died an agonising death about 20 minutes after the hit, which was caught on airport CCTV as the VX rapidly shut down his central nervous system.
The defendants — who face death by hanging if convicted — claim they were duped into believing they were taking part in a prank for a reality TV show and their lawyers have pointed the finger at North Korean agents.
The murder sparked an angry row between Pyongyang, which was accused of masterminding the killing of Kim Jong-Un’s estranged relative, and Malaysia, historically one of Pyongyang’s few allies.
The women arrived at the heavily guarded High Court in Shah Alam, outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, wearing bulletproof vests and handcuffs.
The murder charge was read to Aisyah, 25, and Huong, 29, in their native languages and interpreters indicated they were pleading not guilty.
– ‘Intention to kill’ –
Opening the prosecution, Muhamad Iskandar Ahmad said the women’s actions showed their “intention to kill” and described how they had practised for the hit before carrying it out for real.
The charge sheet accuses the women of killing Kim with four others still at large, who are not named. Four North Korean suspects fled Malaysia on the day of the murder.
The prosecutor said that before the murder Aisyah and Huong had carried out “simulations” which were “overseen by the four who are still free”.
The exercises “were a preparation by all of them to cause the death of the victim,” he said.
Defence lawyers argued the charge was ambiguous due to the failure to identify the four other suspects, and urged the court to reveal their identities. Judge Azmi Ariffin refused the request.
The women’s lawyers believe the four unnamed individuals are the main suspects in the murder.
They argue that their clients, who were living precarious existences among Malaysia’s army of migrant workers, are simply the fall guys.
– Agonising last moments –
Witness Nik Mohamad Adzrul Ariff, a doctor who was on duty at the airport clinic when Kim was brought in after the attack, described how the victim’s health deteriorated rapidly.
“I saw this man clutching his head and his face was very red,” he told the court. “His hands and legs stiffened, his eyes rolled upwards, he was drooling.”
He was given medicine and his condition stabilised but he died in an ambulance en route to hospital.
Huong’s family, who followed the start of the trial from Vietnam, said they felt powerless to help her but insisted they still believed she was innocent.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Nguyen Thi Vy, the stepmother of Huong, who came from a conservative, rice-farming village. “We hope for amnesty for her.”
South Korea accuses the North of ordering the murder of Kim, who had voiced criticism of the regime after falling from grace and going to live in exile overseas. Pyongyang denies the allegations.
As well as the North Koreans who fled immediately after the assassination, several others allegedly linked to the murder plot were allowed to leave Malaysia later to ease a diplomatic crisis.
Prosecutors — who insist the women will get a fair trial — will lay out their case over two months and call 30 to 40 witnesses. The defence is then likely to be called.
Before the murder Malaysia had been one of Pyongyang’s few allies amid a global outcry over the country’s atomic weapons programme.
After the assassination sent diplomatic relations plummeting between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur, tensions only eased when Malaysia agreed to return Kim’s body in March.