A Vietnamese woman suspected of assassinating the North Korean leader's half-brother lost her bid for immediate release on Thursday as Malaysian authorities refused to drop a murder charge, days after her Indonesian co-accused was freed.
Doan Thi Huong broke down in tears as a prosecutor announced the attorney-general had rejected a request to free her and her trial would continue. She has been on trial for a year and a half over the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong Nam at a Kuala Lumpur airport.
On Monday a murder charge was unexpectedly withdrawn against the Indonesian woman accused alongside her, sparking calls from Vietnam for Huong to be freed and prompting her lawyers to apply for her release.
The Vietnamese defendant, who had to be helped out of court by two police officers following the shock announcement, tearfully told reporters: "I am depressed. I am innocent...I want my family to pray for me."
Huong's lawyer said he would make a second bid to get the charge against her dropped, and criticised the failure to free her following the release of Indonesian, Siti Aisyah.
"Both the accused have said they were made scapegoats by North Korea, both of them said they were doing video pranks – very obviously there is discrimination," said Hisyam Teh Poh Teik.
The pair had always denied murder, saying they were tricked by North Korean spies into carrying out the Cold War-style hit that shocked the world using a highly toxic nerve agent, and believed it was a prank for a reality TV show.
Their lawyers presented them as scapegoats and said the real killers were four North Koreans, who were suspected of being the masterminds behind the plot but fled Malaysia shortly after the assassination.
Facing the death penalty
The prosecutor did not give any reason why charges were not being dropped for Huong, 30, who is now the sole defendant on trial for Kim's murder and could face death by hanging if convicted.
Indonesia had mounted a sustained diplomatic offensive to free 27-year-old Aisyah, while Vietnam had only stepped up pressure since the Indonesian woman's release this week.
During the trial, the court saw airport CCTV footage showing Huong approaching Kim, placing her hands on his face and then running away. Aisyah was only seen as a blurred figure fleeing the scene of the crime.
The trial began in October 2017 but there had been no hearings since August last year when the prosecution finished presenting its case.
Proceedings were scheduled to resume Monday with Huong testifying – but the unexpected release of Aisyah led to the trial being adjourned so the Vietnamese suspect could also seek her freedom.
But on Thursday, lead prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad told the High Court in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, that the attorney-general had ordered the case against Huong to proceed.
As Huong broke down in the dock, the judge said she was not in a fit state to testify and ordered that the trial be adjourned until 1 April.
A murder conviction carries a mandatory penalty of death by hanging in Malaysia. The government vowed last year to scrap capital punishment but has indicated this week it would backtrack.
Vietnam had increased pressure on Malaysia to release Huong since Aisyah was freed, with its foreign minister this week pressing his Malaysian counterpart on the issue and the justice minister writing to the attorney-general.
Hanoi said it was disappointed in the outcome of Thursday's hearing.
"We regret the fact that the Malaysian court did not set free Doan Thi Huong immediately," foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said, urging a fair trial.
In Huong's home village her father Doan Van Thanh, who had washed bed sheets in anticipation of her homecoming, was left heartbroken: "I am very sad. The government gave us the best support but the other side could not solve it, what can we do."
Ramkarpal Singh from the Democratic Action Party – a member of Malaysia's ruling coalition – and well-known lawyer called the failure to drop charges against Doan Thi Huong “mind-boggling”, as well as “unprecedented and regrettable”.
Prosecutors said the women had been specially trained to murder the estranged relative of Kim Jong-un, once seen as heir apparent to the North's leadership, but their lawyers insist they were innocent pawns.
South Korea has accused the North of ordering the hit, which Pyongyang denies. - AFP