KUALA LUMPUR: A Malaysian court ruled on Thursday that the two women accused of assassinating Kim Jong Nam, the estranged brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to “enter their defense,” saying that there was sufficient evidence for the trial to go ahead.
The ruling has brought Malaysia’s judicial system under the spotlight.
Closed-circuit television footage from a Malaysian airport showed Kim Jong Nam having his face smeared with a toxic nerve agent known as VX on February 13, 2017. The assassination was carried out in broad daylight inside the bustling airport. One of the women assassins was wearing an “LOL” shirt.
On Thursday High Court Judge Azmi Ariffin ordered Siti Aisyah, a 25-year old Indonesian, and Doan Thi Huong, a 28 year-old Vietnamese, being called upon to “enter their defense.” The ruling may set a stage for a lengthy trial, which could last for six months.
“It’s not unexpected that the judge decided to take this case to trial, and I expect the two accused women will have a hard time defending their actions. But the most frustrating thing is the real culprits — the North Korean government and its agents,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.
Professor James Chin, Malaysia expert and director of the Asia Institute based in Australia’s Tasmania University, told Arab News that the trial itself may not be fair since all key witnesses to the murder are in North Korea.
The judge said it has sufficient evidence that there was a “well-planned conspiracy” between the two women and four North Korean suspects to kill Kim “systemically.” The North Korean suspects who allegedly masterminded the murder boarded the flight on the morning of the murder.
The judge did not rule out that this could be a “political assassination” but noted there was a lack of concrete evidence. If convicted, the two women who are the only suspects who are in custody, could face the death penalty.
“Most people recognize that the two women are probably scapegoats, but the fact remains that their actions killed a man. One hopes that the court will be fair, and that the judge will recognize that the real culprits were the North Koreans who got away while the Malaysian police were not paying attention,” said Robertson.
“The trial will probably be closely watched,” said Dr. Ian Chong, East Asia expert and associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. He told Arab News that this is a time for Malaysia to demonstrate the independence and professionalism of its judicial system and give people confidence in its procedures.
The trial is a litmus test for the newly formed Malaysian government, led by Pakatan Harapan (PH), which promised to uphold “the rule of law” in the country, given the high-profile trials surrounding strategic development company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) expected in the near future.
North Korea has the reputation of being a rogue state with one of the worst human rights records in the world. Kim Jung Nam, the older sibling of the authoritarian North Korean leader, had been a vocal critic of his family’s dynastic rule, even criticizing Jong Un’s leadership qualities, in 2012.
With the Trump-Kim rapprochement at its height, Kim Jong Un’s brother’s bizarre death may have little impact on North Korea’s efforts to mend its relationship with the world through participation at South Korea’s Winter Olympics in February and the Trump-Kim Summit in May.
“I don’t think the trial will affect North Korea unless there is strong evidence demonstrating Pyongyang’s links to the murder,” said Dr. Chong.