On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Keeping the ties that bind

IT was clear from the beginning that Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong were mere pawns in the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

However, what isn’t clear is why the charges against Siti Aisyah were dropped but not those against her co-accused Doan.

No one is disputing that it’s the sole prerogative of the Attorney-General to institute or discontinue prosecution of any charge.

Article 145 (3) of the Federal Constitution clearly stipulates that the AG shall have power, exercisable at his discretion, to institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for an offence, other than proceedings before a syariah court, a native court or a court martial.

But with all due respect, Malaysians expect the AG to give his reasons in the administration of justice as part of upholding the principle of transparency and accountability – which the current leaders of Pakatan Harapan, who now hold Cabinet positions, had been shouting about.

It’s a complete let down that none of them have offered their opinion or stand on the issue. They have become elegantly silent, to borrow a phrase.

It’s unprecedented for the AG to exercise this discretion at such a late stage, after the judge earlier ruled that there was a prima facie case against the two accused and had asked the defence to answer the charges.

Witnesses described how, in the Feb 13, 2017, incident, the victim died in agony shortly after being attacked. The CCTV footage screened in court during the trial showed the suspects rushing to separate bathrooms in the airport after the attack, before leaving in taxis.

Prosecutors even likened the murder to the plot of a James Bond movie, and that CCTV footage even went viral.

Doan reportedly told the police that she was instructed by four men, who were travelling with them, to spray Kim with an “unidentified liquid” while Siti Aisyah held and covered his face with a handkerchief as part of a prank for a TV show.

It was clear that the two women accused of smearing the toxic VX nerve agent were mere pawns while the four North Korean culprits disappeared after the job was executed at KLIA2.

The AG’s decision to drop the case against Siti Aishah has attracted the attention of the international media.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that Indonesia’s government had claimed its continued high-level lobbying resulted in Siti Aisyah’s release.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that she was “deceived and did not realise at all that she was being manipulated by North Korean intelligence”.

The news report said that over the past two years, Siti Aisyah’s plight was raised in “every bilateral Indonesia-Malaysia meeting, including at the president’s and vice president’s levels and in regular meetings of the foreign minister and other ministers with their Malaysian counterparts”.

The March 13 article further quoted analysts saying that Siti Aisyah’s release was in part due to politics and the improved relations between Indonesia and Malaysia since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad returned to the Malaysian premiership last year after the stunning election defeat of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

“One relationship that suffered under Najib was the Malaysia-Indonesia one. Dr Mahathir knows how important good ties are and in this more open era, supporting democratic allies is essential,” academician Bridget Welsh said.

The report said Indonesia assisted Malaysian federal government officials, wanted on corruption charges, to seek refuge there last year.

A luxury yacht at the centre of a Malaysian corruption scandal, was also seized off Bali island, in cooperation with US FBI, and returned to Malaysia last year.

It is understood that Indonesian Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly had persistently pursued the appeal for the accused’s release with the Malaysian AG.

The timing of her release is also thought to help boost the standing of incumbent Indonesian President Jokowi (Joko Widodo) in the elections.

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs, reportedly said:

“While Siti Aisyah’s release was partly political, the case against her was also seen as weaker as her lawyers have told the court there was no video evidence showing her accosting Kim at the airport.”

We don’t know the accuracy of the report or whether this is just a figment of the reporter’s imagination, but because it is, presumably, widely read, it will give the impression that there was some kind of top-level deal in place, rightly or wrongly. An intervention beckons.

The perception didn’t help because the AG’s Chambers hasn’t dropped the charge against Doan.

So it wasn’t a surprise when Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh asked Malaysia to free Doan.

“(He) asked Malaysia to ensure a fair trial, and to set Doan Thi Huong free,” Voice of Vietnam radio reported Tuesday after Minh’s call with Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah.

It goes without saying that the matter will no longer just be a legal issue but could potentially even lead to a diplomatic spat.

Vietnam can now say that the AG has favoured one party, bearing in mind that this court had found a prima facie case against both accused. So why has Indonesia been given preferential treatment, since both women have stated, through their counsels, that they were filming video pranks?

Both also maintained they were made scapegoats by North Korea.

It is crucial that we handle this fairly since Vietnam is also an Asean member, so we must be seen to treasure our relationship with them. The international community will also be watching to see how we deal with this delicate issue.

So far, no one has had the courage to come forward to explain why the charge was dropped against only one accused. The AG has the power to decide, but the decision to withdraw must be done judiciously.

Surely Malaysians, and for that matter, the world, must not get the impression that the AG acted on Indonesia’s request, and that foreign requests should only be considered when an accused is found guilty.

But given that Siti Aisyah has been freed, perhaps the AG should now consider doing the same for Doan?

We trust that AG Tommy Thomas is a man who believes that justice must be treated with mercy, compassion and fairness, and that he will act accordingly.