A Vietnamese woman accused of using a deadly nerve agent to assassinate the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has accepted a lesser charge of “causing hurt by a dangerous weapon.”
On Monday, Malaysian prosecutors offered to reduce the murder charge against Doan Thi Huong, who is the only suspect still behind bars, following the release of her co-accused last month.
Huong, 30, smiled in court after hearing that prosecutors would offer to drop the murder charge and replace it with the lesser charge.
The judge sentenced Huong to three years and four months to be served starting from her date of arrest in February 2017. But Huong’s lawyer said that he expected she could be released as early as May this year, as sentences in Malaysia are automatically reduced by 30%.
Huong was one of two women charged over the February 2017 murder of Kim Jong Nam, an offense punishable by hanging.
Last month, Malaysian prosecutors rejected an appeal to drop the charge against Huong, and did not reveal why they had let co-accused, Indonesian national Siti Aisyah, go free while keeping Huong in custody.
Murder of Kim
Huong, Aisyah and the four North Koreans were accused of exposing Kim to the VX nerve agent as he entered an airport in Kuala Lumpur on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital, killing him in minutes.
Prosecutors alleged that Huong and Aisyah wiped Kim’s face with the chemical before washing themselves. The North Koreans then promptly left the country.
Lawyers for the two women argued they were duped by the North Korean agents, who tricked them into thinking they were taking part in a reality TV show.
Malaysian authorities disagreed. During the police investigation and through most of the trial, police and prosecutors were adamant that both women knew what they were doing.
On Monday, Huong’s lawyer Teh said his team had made a filing asking the attorney general to reconsider the charge against Huong.
“This was accepted by the attorney general and this is what we see happening this morning,” Teh told the court. “To that we say thank you to the attorney general.”
While appealing for a lenient sentence, Teh said his client came from a “humble background.”
“The accused is the youngest in the family,” he said. “The accused at the same time is also naive and she was exploited … The accused has endured enough.”
When asked outside the court whether justice had been served, Teh replied: “Not until the four North Koreans are brought to trial.”
Prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad said that the CCTV footage of the alleged murder was clear. “She just walked away,” he said. “We can see the conduct of the accused.”
Judge Azmi Ariffin told Huong she was a “very lucky person.” The new charge also carries a possible penalty of whipping, but he noted she was exempt as women cannot be whipped under Malaysia’s criminal code.
Ariffin ruled that she could still be discharged and acquitted of the crime if her lawyers were able to raise doubt.
Vietnamese ambassador to Malaysia Le Quy Quynh was present in court alongside a large Vietnamese embassy entourage. Huong’s father – a Vietnam war veteran – was also in court.
There are still four North Koreans who have been charged in absentia with the murder. All four fled Malaysia for an unknown destination soon after the assassination, and international police organization Interpol has issued red notices asking governments around the world to send them back to face trial.
Analysts said if North Korea was behind the killing, Kim Jong Un may have seen his older half-brother as a potential leadership threat – even though their father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, had long discounted Kim Jong Nam as a possible successor.
Kim Jong Nam fell out of favor some two decades ago and lived in self-imposed exile in the Chinese-controled territory of Macau.
North Korea has consistently denied involvement in the killing, though US, South Korean and Malaysian authorities have said Pyongyang was responsible.
CNN’s Julia Hollingsworth and Josh Berlinger reported and wrote from Hong Kong, while Hadi Azmi reported from Shah Alam in Malaysia.