April 1, 2019 / 2:42 AM / 22 days ago

Vietnamese suspect in airport murder escapes death penalty after Malaysia reduces charge

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Vietnamese woman accused of killing the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un escaped the death penalty on Monday, after Malaysian prosecutors dropped a murder charge against her.

Doan Thi Huong, 30, was offered an alternative charge of causing harm, which she pleaded guilty to. A judge sentenced her to more than three years in prison, though her lawyers said she could walk free as early as next month.

Huong and an Indonesian woman, Siti Aisyah, were charged with killing Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX poison, a lethal chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur’s main airport in February 2017. Siti Aisyah walked free last month after prosecutors dropped the charge against her.

South Korean and American officials have said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the allegation.

Malaysia had come under criticism for charging the two women with murder - which carries a mandatory death penalty in the country - when the key perpetrators of the attack were believed to be still at large.

Prosecutors on Monday offered Huong an alternative charge of ‘causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means’. The reduced charge was offered after receiving representations from the Vietnamese embassy and the woman’s lawyers, they said.

Judge Azmi Ariffin sentenced Huong to three years and four months in prison for the reduced charged, adding that Huong was “a very, very lucky person indeed.”

Vietnamese officials in court broke into applause after the ruling. Wearing a red baju kurung, a traditional Malay dress, and a headscarf, Huong stood and nodded as the judge delivered the sentencing.

She later told reporters after the ruling that she would like to pursue singing and acting after she’s freed.

“I’m very happy. I want to sing and act,” she said, beaming at reporters gathered around her.

FILE PHOTO - Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, who was a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam, leaves the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

Before her arrest, Huong was working at an entertainment outlet, Malaysian police have said. A woman bearing a close resemblance to Huong sang on the Vietnam Idol talent show in June 2016.

Speaking from her rural family home in the Red River delta, 130 km (80 miles) from Hanoi, Huong’s stepmother Nguyen Thi Vy said the family was most worried about the death penalty.

“No death penalty is good enough for now,” said Vy, who works as a cleaner at a local market and raises ducks and chickens for extra income.

TO WALK FREE NEXT MONTH?

Huong, who has already served two years in jail, could be released by May 4th as Malaysia allows one-third remission off all prison sentences, her lawyer Hisyam Teh said.

He said Huong had been “naive and gullible” but she was not a criminal. Some of the North Korean suspects in the case “exploited her weaknesses... to carry out their evil design,” he said.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Defense lawyers have maintained the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The women said they thought they were part of a reality prank show and did not know they were poisoning Kim.

Four North Korean men were also charged, but they left Malaysia hours after the murder and remain at large.

Three other North Koreans wanted for questioning in Malaysia were sent back to Pyongyang in a swap-deal after North Korea refused to release Malaysian diplomats trapped in their embassy in Pyongyang if they were not returned, along with Kim Jong Nam’s body. Malaysia has not re-staffed its embassy.

Kim Jong Nam was living in exile in Macau before the killing, having fled his homeland after his half-brother Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s leader in 2011.

Reporting by Rozanna Latiff, Additional reporting by Kham Nguyen and Thinh Nguyen in NAM DINH, Vietnam and James Pearson in HANOI; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Darren Schuettler and Michael Perry

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