KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's High Court on Thursday (Aug 16) ruled that the murder trial for two women accused of assassinating the half-brother of North Korea's leader will continue, in a blow to their families who insist the pair were tricked into carrying out the dramatic hit.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, a Vietnamese, face the death penalty on charges of murdering Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX, a nerve agent banned by the United Nations, at a Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb 13 last year.
Judge Azmi Ariffin accepted the prosecution's case that the women, in common intention with four individuals still at large, had caused Kim's death.
"I must therefore call upon them to enter their defence on their respective charges," he said in his ruling to the Shah Alam High Court, outside Kuala Lumpur.
The women looked shocked and tearful as the ruling was handed down.
The judge could have chosen to acquit the women had he decided the evidence was not sufficient.
While Azmi did not rule out the possibility that the killing could have been a political assassination, there was insufficient evidence to prove it, he added.
The women will take the stand between November and February next year.
JUDGE NOT CONVINCED INCIDENT WAS A PRANK
The women, who are both in their 20s, have pleaded not guilty, saying they thought they were involved in a prank for a reality TV show.
The judge, however, said he was not persuaded by the argument, as there was no hidden crew and no attempt to bring the target in on the joke, as is usual in such shows.
"The sole purpose of a prank is fun with no intention to cause any type of harm ... the use of the word suggests that the act must get everyone laughing at the end, even the target," Azmi told the court.
CCTV footage seen in court during the trial showed the women rushing to separate bathrooms in the airport after the murder, before leaving in taxis.
In his ruling, the judge said that the footage "showed that they had the knowledge that the liquid on their hands was toxic".
'SHE WAS FOOLED'
In Vietnam, responding to Thursday's events, Huong's father, Doan Van Thanh, said: "I don’t know what to do next. I just hope they will find her innocent so that she can return home."
"She knows nothing, she was fooled. The case (against her) was made up," Aisyah's father, Asria, told AFP from the family's village on Indonesia's Java island.
Her mother Benah added: "This is unfair. I wanted her to be released today but if the court refuses what can I do? I can only pray for the final verdict."
Aisyah's lawyer Gooi Soon Seng told reporters: "We are deeply disappointed with the ruling ... we will do our best at the defence stage."
The pair, who face death by hanging if found guilty, claim they were victims of an elaborate murder plot hatched by North Korean agents.
But describing the murder as something out of a James Bond movie, state prosecutors argued the pair were well-trained assassins who knew exactly what they were doing.
The suspects' families have insisted they did not carry out the Cold War-style hit that shocked the world and were hopeful they would be acquitted.
During months of hearings, the court has been told that four North Koreans - who are formally accused alongside the women of committing the murder - recruited the pair and were the masterminds, providing them with the poison on the day of the murder before flying out of the country.
But the defence teams have argued the pair are simply scapegoats, with the authorities unable to catch the real killers, the North Koreans, and therefore desperate to secure some kind of conviction in the case.
Despite the evidence against them, the lawyers had been confident the pair would be acquitted of murder.
They had insisted that prosecutors have not shown they intended to kill Kim, who had been living in exile for a decade since falling out of favour with the North's ruling family.
Siti Aisyah's lawyer Gooi has called the evidence against his client "flimsy and circumstantial" as it relied only on the security footage and the traces of VX on her.
Huong's lawyer, Hisyam Teh, has said his client's conduct after the incident was that of an innocent person.
The prosecution wrapped up closing arguments in June at the court on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital, based on testimony from 34 witnesses.
Expert witnesses testified that traces of VX, a chemical classified as a weapon of mass destruction, were found on the clothing of both women.
Video recordings played in court showed them meeting two of the fugitives at the airport before the attack. They also showed Huong appearing to smear something on Kim Jong Nam's face.
Pyongyang has denied accusations by South Korean and US officials that Kim Jong Un’s regime was behind the killing.