An Indonesian woman accused in the 2017 killing of the North Korean leader’s half-brother was freed on Monday, as a Malaysian court dropped the murder charge against her in a case that drew suspicions of being a political assassination.
As the court gave its decision to release her, Siti Aisyah, 26, turned to her Vietnamese co-defendant Doan Thi Huong, 30, in the dock and the two women, who had been facing the death penalty, embraced tearfully.
They had been accused of poisoning Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.
Following the dramatic decision to release Siti Aisyah, a defence lawyer asked for an adjournment in the case against Doan, 30, in order to submit a request that charges be dropped against her also.
Defence lawyers have maintained that the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents.
Interpol had issued a red notice for four North Koreans who were identified as suspects by Malaysian police and had left the country hours after the murder.
Over the course of the trial, the court was shown CCTV footage of the women allegedly assaulting Kim Jong Nam while he prepared to check-in for a flight at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.
Siti Aisyah, who had worked as a masseuse at a hotel in the Malaysian capital, and Doan, who described herself as an actress, had maintained that they believed they had been hired to participate in a reality TV prank show.
Once the court released her, Siti Aisyah wearing a black traditional Malay dress and headscarf, was rushed to a nearby elevator and taken to the Indonesian embassy in an embassy car.
‘I feel so happy. I did not expect that today I would be released,’ Siti Aisyah told reporters at the embassy, adding that she was healthy and had been treated well in prison.
Prosecutors told the court on Monday that they had been instructed to withdraw the charge against Siti Aisyah. No reason was given for the application.
While the court discharged Siti Aisyah from the case, it rejected her lawyer’s request for her to be fully acquitted, as it said that the trial had already established a prima facie case and she could be recalled if fresh evidence emerges.
Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, said they were happy with the outcome but maintained that his client was ‘merely a scapegoat’.
‘I still believe that North Korea had something to do with it,’ Gooi said.
Kim Jong Nam fled North Korea and lived in exile in Macau for several years before the killing. He had criticised his family’s dynastic rule of North Korea.
Some South Korean lawmakers said the regime of his half-brother had ordered his execution. Pyongyang has denied the accusation.
Doan, 30, had been set to take the stand on Monday at the start of her defence, but the court agreed to resume proceedings on Thursday, pending a reply from the attorney-general to a request that charges against her also be withdrawn.
‘The charge against Siti Aiysah was withdrawn but the charge against Doan was not. And no reason was advanced. We do not know on what basis the charge has been withdrawn,’ Hisyam Teh, Doan’s lawyer, said. Last year, a judge called for the women to enter their defence, saying there was evidence that they were part of a ‘well-planned conspiracy’ with four North Korean men to kill Kim. The men remain at large.
However, Siti Aisyah’s trial was suspended in December as her lawyers argued with prosecutors over access to statements made by seven witnesses.
Prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad told Reuters the decision to withdraw the charge against her was made based on ‘several representations’ but declined to elaborate.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir said in Jakarta said Siti Aisyah’s release was the result of government efforts and preparations were underway to bring her home.
The Indonesian government also released a copy of a letter sent by its law minister to his Malaysian counterpart that laid the blame on North Korea.
‘Miss Aisyah was deceived and had no awareness whatsoever that she was being used as an intelligence tool of North Korea,’ the minister, Yasonna H. Laoly, wrote. ‘Miss Aisyah does not have any benefit or profit from the act.’