Viet woman in Kim assassination to be released

Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong (C) is escorted by Malaysian police out of the High Court in Shah Alam on 1 April, 2019. (Mohd Rasfan / AFP Photo)

A Vietnamese woman accused of assassinating the North Korean leader's half-brother accepted a lesser charge Monday and will walk free in May, after her Indonesian co-accused was released last month.

Doan Thi Huong smiled and said "I'm happy" after prosecutors presented the new charge in a Malaysian court, where she has been on trial since 2017 for the murder of Kim Jong Nam with a nerve agent in a Cold War-style hit.

Huong's new sentence is three years and four months in jail, which includes time served since her arrest in February 2017. Her lawyer said after sentence reductions she would most likely be released in early May.

It came after authorities last month rejected a request for her murder charge to be dropped entirely – a shock decision after the attorney-general agreed to withdraw the charge against her Indonesian co-defendant, Siti Aisyah.

Both women had always denied murder, saying they were tricked by North Korean spies into carrying out the assassination that shocked the world, and believed it was a prank for a reality TV show.

Huong pleaded guilty to a new charge which said she had "purposely caused injury" to Kim by employing "dangerous means" in attacking him with VX at Kuala Lumpur airport, rather than the original murder charge which carries a mandatory death penalty. 

Denied murder

In Huong's home province of Nam Dinh, her step mother Nguyen Thi Vy was hopeful: "I just hope she will be released... She has always been a nice girl."

If she is released, it will mean that no one is facing murder charges for the February 2017 killing of Kim Jong-un's estranged relative, who was once considered heir apparent to the North Korean leadership until he fell out of favour. 

South Korea accuses the North of ordering the hit, a claim vehemently denied by Pyongyang.

The women's lawyers presented them as scapegoats and said the real masterminds were four North Koreans accused alongside them, who fled Malaysia shortly after the assassination.

There were dramatic scenes when Huong's initial bid for immediate release was rejected last month – she sobbed in the dock and had to be helped out of court by two police officers. 

Vietnam reacted angrily to the decision, and started stepping up pressure on Malaysia to free Huong. 

A murder conviction carries a mandatory penalty of death by hanging in Malaysia. The government vowed last year to scrap capital punishment but recently indicated that it might backtrack. - AFP