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Kim Jong Nam: Suspect in killing of North Korean leader's brother avoids death penalty

Lawyers for two women initially implicated in Kim Jong Nam's murder have said they were pawns in a political assassination.
Image: Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, center, is escorted by police as she leaves Shah Alam High Court in Shah Alam, Malaysia
"I am happy," Doan Thi Huong said as she left the courtroom on Monday.Vincent Thian / AP

SHAH ALAM, Malaysia — A Vietnamese woman who is the only suspect in custody for the killing of the North Korean leader's half brother pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in a Malaysian court on Monday, with her lawyer saying she could be freed as early as next month.

Doan Thi Huong had faced a murder charge, which carried the death penalty if she was convicted, in the slaying of Kim Jong Nam, who died after being accosted by two women in a Kuala Lumpur airport terminal. Huong nodded as a translator read the new charge to her: voluntarily causing injury with a dangerous weapon, VX nerve agent.

Image: Kim Jong Nam
Kim Jong Nam in 2001Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP - Getty Images file

High Court judge Azmi Ariffin sentenced Huong to three years and four months from the day she was arrested on Feb. 15, 2017. Huong's lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik said his client is expected to be freed by the first week of May, after a one-third reduction in her sentence for good behavior.

"I am happy," Huong, 30, told reporters as she left the courtroom, adding she thought it was a fair outcome.

While handing out a jail term short of the maximum 10 years the new charge carried, the judge told Huong she was "very, very lucky" and he wished her "all the best." Vietnamese officials in the courtroom cheered when the decision was announced.

Huong is the only suspect in custody after the Malaysian attorney general's stunning decision to drop the murder case against Indonesian Siti Aisyah on March 11 following high-level lobbying from Jakarta. Huong sought to be acquitted after Aisyah was freed, but prosecutors rejected her request.

Prosecutor Iskandar Ahmad told the court that the attorney-general offered the reduced charge to Huong following pleas from the Vietnamese government and her lawyers.

The original charge had alleged the two women colluded with four North Koreans to murder Kim with VX nerve agent they smeared on his face as he was passing through the airport on Feb. 13, 2017. The women had said they thought they were taking part in a harmless prank for a TV show.

The four North Koreans fled Malaysia on the same day Kim was killed.

The High Court judge last August had found there was enough evidence to infer that Aisyah, Huong and the four North Koreans engaged in a "well-planned conspiracy" to kill Kim and had called on the two women to present their defense.

Lawyers for the women have said that they were pawns in a political assassination with clear links to the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and that the prosecution failed to show the women had any intention to kill. Intent to kill is crucial to a murder charge under Malaysian law.

Huong's lawyer told the court Monday that her guilty plea to the lesser charge showed she "has taken responsibility" for her actions. In asking for a lenient sentence, he also told the court that her move saved judicial time.

Image: Doan Thi Huong leaves Shah Alam High Court
Doan Thi Huong leaves Shah Alam High Court.Vincent Thian / AP

Hisyam had urged the judge to take into account Huong's honesty, her acceptance of responsibility and the acquittal of her co-defendant.

"She is neither a criminal nor has the propensity to commit a crime," Hisyam said.

Huong, the youngest of five children, has a promising future with a degree in accountancy but she is also "naive and gullible," he said.

Hisyam said four North Korean suspects still at large were the "real assassins."

They "exploited her weakness and manipulated her to carry out their evil designs under the camouflage of funny videos and pranks," he said.

The judge said he had taken into account the gravity of the offense and also the fact that Huong was remorseful and a first offender. He said the sentence "would serve the interest of justice."

Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea and have made it clear they don't want the trial politicized.

Kim Jong Nam was the eldest son in the current generation of North Korea's ruling family. He had been living abroad for years but could have been seen as a threat to Kim Jong Un's rule.