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Woman Accused Of Murdering Half Brother Of North Korea's Leader Is Freed


Malaysia has freed one of two women accused of an assassination. Both were charged with a role in killing the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Michael Sullivan reports on this surprising development.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In the courtroom yesterday morning, when the prosecution announced its surprise decision, Siti Aisyah turned to hug her Vietnamese codefendant, both in tears. Then she was whisked away to the Indonesian embassy, then put on a plane for Jakarta and a packed news conference once she arrived.


SITI AISYAH: (Speaking foreign language).

SULLIVAN: "I feel very, very happy," she said, amid the glare of TV lights and shouted questions from reporters. "I don't have the words to say how happy I feel." Had she been convicted of murder, Siti Aisyah could have faced the death penalty.


AISYAH: (Speaking foreign language).

SULLIVAN: She thanked Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, and everyone else who'd worked for her surprise release. Kim Jong Nam's bizarre murder with a deadly VX nerve agent occurred in February 2017, as he waited to board a flight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Surveillance footage shown during the trial shows two women accosting Kim in the departure area, allegedly smearing his face with a deadly nerve agent. He died minutes later. Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong say they were set up and thought they were performing a prank for a reality TV show.

Siti Aisyah's lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng.


GOOI SOON SENG: We still truly believe that she is merely a scapegoat and she's innocent, as we have already submitted much earlier.

SULLIVAN: He says North Korean agents orchestrated Kim's death, and he's not alone. Four North Korean men Malaysian police had identified as suspects fled the country just hours after Kim's assassination. Prosecutors gave no reason for dropping the charge against Siti Aisyah, but Indonesian officials had been lobbying hard for her release - the Indonesian Foreign Ministry saying she'd been deceived and manipulated by North Korean intelligence. Kim Jong Nam had fled North Korea shortly after his brother, Kim Jong Un, took over after their father's death. The other defendant, Doan Thi Huong, remains in jail. Her lawyers have now asked that her case be adjourned and charges against her be dropped, too. She is due in court again on Thursday.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.