Two young women accused of murdering the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un are set to face trial Oct. 2 in a Malaysian court, setting in motion a case of international intrigue pitting the two migrants who claim they are innocent against an unrelenting legal apparatus.
Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 29, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, entered the High Court in Shah Alam, just outside of the capital Kuala Lumpur, with their heads bowed down on Friday morning, donning flak jackets over brightly colored Malay dresses that flickered through a wall of armed guards as they were ushered inside for a case management hearing. If convicted, they will likely face the death penalty.
“We will ensure that the rights of the accused persons will be respected and they will receive a fair trial,” Huong’s lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told reporters outside the courthouse. The suspects are both expected to fight the charges, though the judge declined to hear a plea on Friday. “Definitely, they are not guilty,” Huong’s counsel said.
The pair were apprehended in the days after being captured on closed circuit security cameras appearing to smear a substance on the face of Kim Jong Nam, the exiled sibling of the North Korean dictator, in the departures hall of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The defendants, both migrant workers in the capital, claim they were duped into killing him. Lawyers for the two women say they believed they were participants in an innocuous television prank, offered roughly $100 to douse a stranger with what they said they believed was either baby oil or water.
Kim died some 20 minutes later, having been exposed to what was later determined to be VX nerve agent, an internationally prohibited chemical weapon. Both women had since scurried off, while four suspected accomplices — all North Korean — disappeared into the busy terminal and boarded flights abroad. Three other suspects hid out in the North Korean embassy, later to be sent back to Pyongyang in exchange for nine Malaysian nationals held as diplomatic hostages.
One North Korean man was briefly held by Malaysian authorities in connection with the case, but was freed for lack of evidence. Only Aisyah and Huong currently face trial for the crime that is being treated as a brazenly public political assassination. Aisyah’s lawyers have called the case a “trial by ambush,” claiming that the prosecution had withheld evidence that could strengthen their client’s defense.
Some of this evidence was handed over to the defense Friday morning, but lawyers for both suspects said they have not received all of the requested materials, including some remaining CCTV footage and statements made by the three North Korean men who have since returned to their home country.
“We believe the main suspects are the four North Koreans who have fled the country … All we are left with is evidence that [the two women] had no intention — they thought it was a prank,” Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi Soon Seng said.
South Korean officials were quick to blame Pyongyang for Kim’s death, but Malaysian authorities have shown more reticence. Pyongyang has denied any role in the killing, and initially claimed that the victim was not related to its Supreme Leader. The exiled half-brother, a son of North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong Il and his preferred mistress, had been living for years in China’s semi-autonomous city of Macau under the assumed identity of Kim Chol, the name appearing on a falsified passport he held at the time of his death.
The North Korean government has ordered killings before, including against family members. Experts say Kim Jong Un may have had reason to want his sibling eliminated, while motives for Aisyah and Huong would appear less obvious.
“She is just an ordinary girl from Indonesia,” Gooi said of his client Aisyah, who he said worked as a masseuse at a hotel spa in Kuala Lumpur, speaks only a few words beyond her native language and hardly ever traveled. “I cannot say how confident I am, but I believe that justice will prevail at the end of the day.”
Bridget Welsh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Center of East Asia Democratic Studies in Taiwan says that after letting other suspects return to North Korea, the Malaysian government is under pressure to hold someone responsible.
“There is no reason for these women to do this unless they were duped or paid, the latter of which does not seem to be the case,” she tells TIME. “International attention will bring pressure, but ultimately the Malaysian government will need to hold someone responsible and sadly these women are all they have.”