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Suspect in Kim Jong Nam assassination freed by Malaysia after charges dropped

People watch a TV screen broadcasting a news report on the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the older half brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 14, 2017. Lim Se-young / News1 via Reuters

HONG KONG - One of the women suspected of killing Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was freed Monday in Malaysia after prosecutors unexpectedly dropped charges against her.

Siti Aisyah, 26, returned home to Indonesia on Monday evening. She and the second suspect in the murder, Doan Thi Huong, 30, from Vietnam, appeared in court Monday, but charges were dropped only against Aisyah.

"I feel very happy," she said at a news conference, thanking everyone who worked for her release after more than two years in Malaysian custody. "I didn't expect that today will be the day of my freedom."

The two women, who maintain their innocence, were accused of delivering the potent VX nerve agent that killed Kim Jong Nam in an airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February 2017. Both Aisyah and Huong have said they thought they were taking part in a prank for a television show and were applying lotion on the man's face. U.S. officials have said the orders came from Pyongyang.

The pair were the only ones held by Malaysian authorities, after four North Korean suspects fled the country the day of Kim's murder. He was the eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and had lived abroad since 2003. Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and was succeeded by Kim Jong Un, who then set about consolidating power.

In a statement, Malaysian Attorney General Tommy Thomas said Aisyah's release came after intervention from the Indonesian government, which repeatedly lobbied for the charges against her to be dropped and for her to be allowed to return home. The decision was made "taking into account the good relations" between Indonesia and Malaysia, Thomas wrote in a letter to Indonesia's minister of law and human rights.

The woman's case was raised at every meeting between Indonesia and Malaysia, Indonesian officials said, including when Indonesian President Joko Widodo met with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in July. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslim-majority nations, with closely related languages and deep ties.

"We are grateful the public prosecutor has come to this conclusion because we truly believe she is merely a scapegoat and she is innocent," said Gooi Soon Seng, Aisyah's attorney.

The trial against Huong, however, will continue Thursday. She was expected to testify for the first time in court Monday, but she read only a few lines of her prepared statement tearfully. Her attorneys have asked Thomas to review the case and called for the charges against her to be withdrawn on the same grounds as Aisyah's were.

"We are hoping against hope that the charges against her will be dropped," said Teh Poh Teik, Huong's attorney. "It is unfair that despite the case being the same for both, that one could have been dropped without explanation, while the other is being set to continue."

Huong grew up in Nghia Binh, Vietnam, not far from Hanoi, and is thought to have been recruited by North Korean agents while working at a bar in the Vietnamese capital. She flew to Kuala Lumpur a week before Kim Jong Nam's slaying Feb. 13, 2017. Aisyah was a migrant worker in Kuala Lumpur and is believed to have been approached at the nightclub where she worked by a man who persuaded her to participate in the purported prank.

A Malaysian high court judge found in August that there was enough evidence to prosecute Aisyah, Huong and the four fugitive North Koreans on charges of conspiring to kill Kim. But Aisyah and Huong's attorneys have consistently argued that their clients were mere scapegoats in the political assassination, which had clear links to North Korea.

The Washington Post's Jonathan Edward in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

This article was written by Shibani Mahtani, a reporter for The Washington Post.