Two women who allegedly smeared the face of North Korean exile Kim Jong Nam with a banned VX nerve agent are due to make their first court appearance today as their trial begins in Malaysia.
Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, migrant workers from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively, were caught on camera wiping a substance on the face of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13.
The two are being held responsible by prosecutors for Jong Nam’s murder, though it is widely believed that the North Korean state played a hand in the assassination.
That accusation has been repeatedly denied by Pyongyang, though several diplomatic officials from the reclusive country returned home from Kuala Lumpur airport shortly after the incident.
In prosecuting the two migrant workers who were employed in the entertainment industry, Malaysian authorities have effectively dropped their accusation against North Korean officials.
That implicit decision was made clear a few weeks ago when the body of Jong Nam was released to North Korea, ending a diplomatic spat between the two countries and allowing their respective citizens and diplomats – until then effectively held hostage – to return home.
Just before their trial is set to start, a lawyer for Aisyah has said that by permitting the North Koreans to leave the country, Malaysia has potentially compromised the case and that he’s afraid his client will become a scapegoat.
Speaking to The Associated Press, the lawyer said the man who he believes recruited his client was allowed to leave Malaysia late last month, after the country struck a surprise deal with North Korea.
“[He] may not be implicated in the actual event of the murder, but his evidence is so important, central to our defense because it clearly shows how this naive girl was duped into doing things outside her knowledge,” Gooi Soon Seng said at his office in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur.
Aisyah and Huong, both young women in their 20s, say they thought they were participating in a television prank organized by the North Koreans who fled shortly after Nam’s death. Aisyah said she received USD90 for participating.
They have been held in detention awaiting the trial that commences today.
Lawyers for the two women said in an interview with media website Quartz that the suspects are being treated well and are in good health. They are being held separately, the lawyers said, and have their own prison cells.
Those following the story appear to be split between the sympathizers who believe Aisyah and Huong’s account, and skeptics.
The latter group point to the manner in which the suspects hurried to the bathroom to wash their hands after the incident and the fact that their hands were deliberately held apart from their body. The behavior, skeptics hold, is inconsistent with what might be expected if the two thought they were simply smearing baby oil to Nam’s face.
These same people point to the fact that the travel arrangements of the two don’t match that of typical migrant workers, as they often travelled to nearby countries in Southeast Asia.
“There are some who say… [North Korea] used them,” Aegile Fernandez, director of Malaysian rights group Tenaganita, told Quartz. “Then there are others who say no, they are intelligent enough to know the difference. So there is a mixed reaction from the public.”
However, the women’s lawyers say that their stories are consistent and the biggest challenge ahead will be the fact that other suspects in the case have already fled the country.
“Our biggest problem is that the main culprit has escaped,” Asiyah’s lawyer told the media outlet.
There is a possibility that Aisyah and Huong will be found guilty of murder, which carries a mandatory death sentence in Malaysia. Alternatively, they may be found guilty of culpable homicide (manslaughter), which typically entails a lesser punishment of a prison sentence and a fine.