Two women accused of the Cold War-style assassination of the half-brother of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un go on trial next week, possibly lifting the lid on the mysterious murder in Malaysia that sparked a diplomatic crisis.
The defendants have barely been seen in public since their arrest just days after the murder of Kim Jong-nam on 13 February as he waited to board a plane to Macau at Kuala Lumpur airport.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong are accused of rubbing toxic VX nerve agent in his face in a murder that sparked a fierce row between North Korea and Malaysia
Malaysia had been one of North Korea’s few allies amid global alarm over the country’s atomic weapons programme.
Kim Jong-nam died about 20 minutes after the attack, which was caught on airport CCTV as the VX – a chemical so deadly it is listed as a weapon of mass destruction – rapidly overcame his central nervous system.
Defence lawyers have claimed the real culprits have now left Malaysia and that the trial of the two women is motivated by the prosecution’s desire to secure any sort of conviction in the case.
Their only appearances since February have been at heavily guarded court dates, with the pair surrounded by heavily armed police as they have been ushered into hearings wearing flack jackets and handcuffs in front of the world’s media.
The closely-watched trial will start Monday at Sham Alam High Court, just outside Kuala Lumpur, with Ms Aisyah, 25, and Ms Huong, 29, expected to plead not guilty before the prosecution begins presenting their case.
There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the murder.
These range from how two women living precarious existences among Malaysia’s army of migrant workers allegedly became involved in a high-profile assassination, to how a lethal nerve agent was deployed in an airport and killed Kim Jong-nam but harmed no one else.
South Korea accuses the North of being behind the murder.
Kim Jong-nam had voiced criticism of the regime after falling from grace and going to live in exile overseas.
The North denies the allegation.
Some North Korean figures linked to the plot fled Malaysia immediately after the assassination, while others were allowed to leave the country later to ease the diplomatic crisis.
The women’s legal teams also accuse prosecutors of dragging their heels on handing over key material required to mount a defence.
Ms Aisyah’s lawyer said authorities’ failure to cooperate meant the suspects could face a “trial by ambush”.
“The way police go about the investigation in this case, it is shrouded with mystery,” he told AFP, adding there were “elements of politics” in the case.
But prosecutors insist the women will have a fair trial.