Malaysian court tells women charged in killing of North Korean to enter defense

Vietnamese defendant Doan Thi Huong, right, and Indonesian defendant Siti Aishah, second left, are escorted by Malaysian police in this October 24, 2017 photo. (AFP)
Updated 18 August 2018

Malaysian court tells women charged in killing of North Korean to enter defense

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.

Hajj now ‘more affordable’ for Muslim Filipinos

Updated 43 min 30 sec ago

Hajj now ‘more affordable’ for Muslim Filipinos

  • Steps taken by the Philippine government have resulted in an “unprecedented” reduction in Hajj fees and better accommodation for Filipino pilgrims
  • The reduced fees come with the entry of a third airline that will transport Filipino Hajj pilgrims, after the Kingdom agreed to waive its two-airline policy for the Philippines

MANILA: The annual Hajj pilgrimage is now “more affordable” for Muslim Filipinos thanks to reforms instituted by the Philippines’ National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) and successful talks with Saudi Arabia, said NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan.
Steps taken by the Philippine government have resulted in an “unprecedented” reduction in Hajj fees and better accommodation for Filipino pilgrims, he added.
In an advisory released earlier this month, the NCMF announced that starting this year, “there will be changes for the benefit of all intending pilgrims in the annual Hajj or pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.”
Among these changes is the assurance that Filipino pilgrims will only be accommodated in four- and five-star hotels in Madinah and Makkah, with adequate shuttle services to and from the places of Hajj rituals.
“Everyone is assured that the past experience of substandard hotel accommodations for Filipinos will never be experienced again,” said Pangarungan, who will serve as official head of the Philippine pilgrims’ delegation this year.
The reduced fees come with the entry of a third airline that will transport Filipino Hajj pilgrims, after the Kingdom agreed to waive its two-airline policy for the Philippines.
“Historically, only … Saudia Airlines and Philippine Airlines (PAL) were allowed as transportation of Filipino pilgrims,” said Pangarungan.
In January, he and other NCMF officials traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with Deputy Minister for Hajj and Umrah Dr. Sharief Housnie.
During the meeting, Pangarungan explained the financial limitations of Muslim Filipinos, and negotiated for the landing rights of another airline that will shuttle pilgrims from the Philippines. The Saudi government heeded the request.
Pangarungan said the airfare rates of the third airline, Oman Air, is significantly lower than both Saudia and PAL.
So if a pilgrim chooses to fly with Oman Air, the total Hajj fee will be 166,786 Philippine pesos ($3,204), compared with 197,000 pesos last year. Should a pilgrim choose Saudia, the total fee will be 185,336 pesos.
Also at the meeting, the NCMF got assurances that Filipino pilgrims would only be accommodated in four- or five-star hotels. This year, Saudi Arabia has allocated a quota of 8,000 Hajj visas for Filipino pilgrims.
Ebra Moxsir, president of the Imam Council of the Philippines (ICP), welcomed the changes, saying they will allow more Filipino Muslims to perform Hajj.
“We can’t expect everyone to be satisfied with these changes, but it’s still good news,” Moxsir told Arab News. “If you’re a Muslim who has the financial capability, it’s mandatory to perform Hajj even once in your life.”
Journalist Ali Macabalang, who has gone to Makkah twice to cover Hajj, said in the past, due to schemes by “some unscrupulous officials and individuals,” Filipino pilgrims had to pay more.
“While collected funds were enough to put them in good hotels, our pilgrims would end up in crowded dormitories … One room that could accommodate four people would have eight to 12 occupants,” Macabalang said.
“Each of the pilgrims paid for separate rooms … but they end up in cramped dormitories … So it’s really a welcome development what the present leadership is introducing this year.”
Huma Ahmad, who was among Filipino pilgrims last year, said the reduced fees are “good news for those who’ll join the Hajj this year. Hopefully it’ll be a success for all pilgrims.”
Of the estimated 10 million Muslims in the Philippines, on average 7,000 join the pilgrimage each year. Macabalang said the new changes will enable more fellow Muslim Filipinos to perform Hajj.
Some Filipino pilgrims even sell their property to raise funds to perform the pilgrimage, he added.
“It’s unfortunate that some unscrupulous individuals were using it (Hajj) to take advantage of the pilgrims,” he said.
Philippine pilgrims were almost barred from this year’s pilgrimage due to an NCMF debt of 11 million pesos owed to a Saudi tourism company that handled Hajj-related activities for Filipino pilgrims in 2017 and 2018.
Dimapuno Alonto Datu Ramos Jr., director of the NCMF bureau of external relations, said: “This debt, if it remained unpaid, would’ve been enough grounds to block all Philippine pilgrims from joining the Hajj.”
Pangarungan, who became NCMF secretary in July last year, immediately called for an investigation upon learning of the issue, said Ramos Jr.
He added that Pangarungan ordered that the amount be settled so it would not affect those joining the pilgrimage in August.
“If the final report will prove that there’s sufficient evidence of corruption, a case will be filed at the ombudsman,” Ramos Jr. said, adding that initial reports from the investigation indicate that funds were mismanaged by some NCMF officials.
Relations between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia stretch back almost five decades, with total trade of around $1.25 billion in 2017. The Kingdom hosts almost a million Filipino workers.