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Murder charge dropped in Kim Jong Nam case

Siti Aisyah has said she thought she was taking part in a prank for a TV show. Some South Korean lawmakers have said Pyongyang ordered the assassination.

SHAH ALAM, Malaysia — An Indonesian woman held for two years on suspicion of killing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother was freed from custody Monday after prosecutors unexpectedly dropped the murder charge against her.

Siti Aisyah cried and hugged her Vietnamese co-defendant, Doan Thi Huong, before leaving the courtroom. She told reporters that she had only learned Monday morning that she would be freed.

"I am surprised and very happy," she said. "I didn't expect it."

The two young women were accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam's face in an airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13, 2017. They have said they thought they were taking part in a prank for a TV show. They had been the only suspects in custody after four North Korean suspects fled the country the same morning Kim was killed.

The High Court judge discharged Aisyah without an acquittal after prosecutors said they wanted to withdraw the murder charge against her. They did not give a reason.

The trial will resume Thursday, with prosecutors expected to reply to a request by Huong's lawyers asking the government to similarly withdraw the charges against her.

Image: Kim Jong Nam
Kim Jong Nam in 2010.JOONGANG SUNDAY / AFP - Getty Images file

Indonesia's government said its continual high-level lobbying resulted in Aisyah's release. The foreign ministry said in a statement that she was "deceived and did not realize at all that she was being manipulated by North Korean intelligence."

It said Aisyah believed that she was part of a reality TV show and never had any intention of killing Kim.

Indonesia's ambassador to Malaysia, Rusdi Kirana, said he was thankful to the Malaysian government. "We believe she is not guilty," he said.

Prosecutor Iskandar Ahmad said that the discharge not amounting to acquittal means Aisyah can be recharged, but that there are no such plans for now.

Meanwhile, Huong said she was shocked by the development.

"I am in shock. My mind is blank," a distraught Huong told reporters through a translator after Aisyah left.

Huong's lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik said Huong felt Aisyah's discharge was unfair to her as the judge last year had found sufficient evidence to continue the murder trial against them.

"She is entitled to the same kind of consideration as Aisyah," he said. "We are making representation to the attorney general for Doan to be taken equally."

Image: Siti Aisyah in a photo released in 2017
Siti Aisyah in an image released by the Royal Malaysia Police six days after Kim Jong Nam's death in 2017.Royal Malaysia Police / Handout via Reuters, file

A High Court judge last August had found there was enough evidence to infer Aisyah, Huong and the four missing North Koreans had engaged in a "well-planned conspiracy" to kill Kim. The defense phase of the trial had been scheduled to start in January but was delayed until Monday.

Lawyers for the women have previously said 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.

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.

Some South Korean lawmakers have said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam. Pyongyang has denied the accusation.