KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Wearing bulletproof vests, their eyes red and heads bowed, two young women accused of smearing VX nerve agent on the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader were charged with murder Wednesday in a Malaysian court.
The women, protected by masked special forces carrying machine guns, are at the center of the bizarre killing of Kim Jong Nam at a busy Kuala Lumpur airport terminal. Many speculate the attack was orchestrated by North Korea, but it has denied any role.
“I understand but I am not guilty,” Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong told the court in English after the murder charge was read. She looked briefly at the public gallery, her eyes red and face puffy, as she was led out.
The other suspect, Indonesian Siti Aisyah, nodded as her translator told her, “You are accused of murdering a North Korean man at the departure hall” of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. She was dressed in a red T-shirt and jeans.
The women did not enter pleas because the magistrate court where they appeared has no jurisdiction over a murder case. Lead prosecutor Iskander Ahmad told the court he will ask for the case to be transferred to a higher court and for the women to be tried together.
Each faces a mandatory death sentence if convicted. Both women were wearing bulletproof vests as they were escorted from the court to Kajang Prison.
Kim Jong Nam was attacked at the airport as he waited for his flight home to Macau on Feb. 13. He died shortly after two women went up behind him and wiped something onto his face.
Both women have reportedly said they thought they were part of a prank TV show playing harmless tricks on unsuspecting people. Aisyah told authorities she was paid the equivalent of $90.
The attack was caught on grainy airport surveillance video; Huong was seen clearly in a T-shirt with “LOL” emblazoned across the front. Both women were originally from modest farming villages and had moved to their countries’ capitals seeking a better life.
Gooi Soon Seng, Aisyah’s lawyer, spoke to his client for the first time Wednesday.
“Her eyes were red and she says she’s innocent,” he said.
Also Wednesday, the court approved a gag order to prevent police and potential witnesses from making public statements about the case.
Kim’s corpse is at the center of a growing diplomatic battle between North Korea and Malaysia.
North Korea is widely speculated to have been behind the killing, particularly after Malaysia said Friday that VX had killed Kim. Experts say the oily poison was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory.
North Korea’s official news agency called that finding the “height of absurdity” on Wednesday, saying the two women could not have used such a deadly toxin without killing or sickening themselves and anyone around them.
On Tuesday, a high-level North Korean delegation arrived in Kuala Lumpur seeking custody of the body.
North Korea opposed Malaysian officials even conducting an autopsy, while Malaysia has resisted giving up the body without getting DNA samples and confirmation from next of kin.
Malaysian officials have confirmed that the victim of the attack was Kim Jong Nam. North Korea, however, has identified him only as a North Korean national with a diplomatic passport bearing the name Kim Chol.
Health Minister Subramaniam Sathasivam said Malaysia will continue to insist that the body be identified by medical examiners through DNA or other means before it can be released. He said the protocol is to release it to the next-of-kin once identification is completed.
Kim is believed to have two sons and a daughter with two women living in Beijing and Macau.
The North Korean delegation is also seeking the release of a North Korean arrested in the case, 45-year-old Ri Jong Chol. Malaysia has not described his alleged role in the killing, and authorities can continue to hold him without charges until Friday.
Authorities are seeking seven other North Korean suspects, four of whom fled the country the day of Kim’s death and are believed to be back in North Korea. Others sought include the second secretary of North Korea’s embassy and an employee of North Korea’s state-owned airline, Air Koryo.
Kim Jong Nam was estranged from his half brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He reportedly fell out of favor with their father, the late Kim Jong Il, in 2001, when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
Isolated North Korea has a long history of ordering killings of people it views as threats to its regime. Kim Jong Nam was not known to be seeking political power, but his position as eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since it was founded could have made him appear to be a danger.