Updated at 4:20 p.m. ET on 2017-03-01
Two women arrested for the nerve agent assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother were produced and charged in a Malaysian court Wednesday with his murder.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 28, were brought under heavy security to the packed magistrate's court in Sepang district, the location of the Kuala Lumpur international airport where Kim Jong Nam was murdered on Feb. 13.
The case was adjourned to April 13 to give prosecutors and defense lawyers for the two women adequate time to prepare their arguments in a trial to be conducted in a higher court.
The women were ferried to court separately, each escorted by seven patrol cars and outriders. They left the court wearing bulletproof vests.
Aisyah, a mother of one from Jakarta, arrived in court wearing a red shirt matching her red-dyed hair and appeared nervous, while Huong, a woman with blonde-tinted hair from rural northern Vietnam, wore a yellow shirt. They face the death penalty if convicted.
Court officials read the murder charges to them separately but no plea was officially recorded.
The two were accused of killing Kim Jong Nam “with four others who are still at large” at about 9 a.m. at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA 2) departure hall, according to identical charges read out to them.
Aisyah said she understood the charge and pleaded not guilty when a translator accidentally asked for her plea, according to a reporter for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, who attended the court hearing.
Huong at first appeared as if she did not understand the charge until a court officer stepped in and sought clarification from her. "I understand," she said later.
Aisyah's lead counsel, Gooi Soon Seng, successfully requested the court to issue a gag order on police and potential witnesses, preventing them from talking to the media about aspects of the case, which has come under international scrutiny.
Jakarta's foreign ministry said that defense lawyers had been granted a request for a “gag order” to prevent details of the investigations being disclosed “so there is no interference in the ongoing legal process,” Agence France-Presse reported.
The two women are being detained at a prison in Kajang, a city south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, Gooi said. "I will try and meet her (Aisyah) next week," he said.
“Aisyah appeared nervous, her eyes were red,” he said. “She was not crying in the court room but I suspect she was before.”
Huong's lawyer told reporters outside the court that his client had told him she was innocent, according to Reuters.
“She denied. She denied. She said 'I'm innocent',” Selvam Shanmugam said.
"Of course, she's definitely distressed because she is facing death penalty,” he added.
Huong's father, Doan Van Thanh told RFA's Vietnamese service, he had read about the hearing online.
"We are very sad and worried, but we don’t know what to do. She was OK before and this is something we did not expect to happen to her," he told RFA, adding that he planned to go to Hanoi Thursday to talk to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry to seek help.
Duped into killing him
United States and South Korean officials have accused North Korean agents of masterminding the murder of Kim Jong Nam. His brother Kim Jong Un allegedly had a standing order for his assassination fearing he could be used in any overthrow of his brutal regime.
Aisyah and Huong have told police they were duped into killing Kim Jong Nam by “friends” who told them it was just a harmless prank for a reality show, according to news reports.
Malaysian authorities have accused North Koreans of arranging to have Aisyah and Huong apply the deadly nerve agent VX on Kim's face. The chemical is on a United Nations list of banned weapons of mass destruction.
CCTV footage went viral on the internet showing two women carrying out the attack. Malaysian authorities arrested the suspects days later.
A North Korean man in Malaysian custody, Ri Jong Chol, who reportedly holds a doctorate in chemistry, is one of eight North Koreans whom police have named as suspects in the killing.
On Wednesday, Pyongyang said it was “absurd” that VX was used, saying South Korea and the U.S. were mounting a campaign to discredit the hardline communist state.
It was “the height of absurdity to claim that the person who applied VX... was left unaffected and the person to whom it was applied met a death,” North Korea’s official KCNA news agency cited unidentified experts as saying.
At the court and surrounding area on Wednesday, there was a heavy presence of armed policemen from the Special Task Force on Organized Crime (STAFOC).
Journalists began arriving at the court as early as 5 a.m. Only 30 of them were allowed into the courtroom while more than a hundred waited outside as the hearing began around 10 a.m.
Ties between Malaysia and North Korea have deteriorated following the murder. Malaysia last week withdrew its envoy to Pyongyang after North Korea’s ambassador repeatedly slammed Malaysia’s investigation and refusal to hand over Kim Jong Nam’s body.
On Tuesday, a high-level North Korean delegation arrived in Kuala Lumpur seeking custody of the body.
Malaysian Health Minister Subramaniam Sathasivam said Malaysia wanted the body to 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 Jong Nam is believed to have two sons and a daughter with two women living in Beijing and Macau.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.