Malaysia frees Vietnamese woman accused of killing North Korean leader’s half-brother

FILE PHOTO: Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, who was a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam, leaves the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A Vietnamese woman who spent more than two years in a Malaysian prison on suspicion of killing the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was freed on Friday, her lawyer said.

Doan Thi Huong, 30, was charged along with an Indonesian woman with poisoning Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Malaysian prosecutors dropped a murder charge against Huong last month after she pleaded guilty to an alternate charge of causing harm. Huong will return to Vietnam later on Friday, her lawyer, Hisyam Teh, told Reuters.

In a handwritten letter, Huong thanked the governments of Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as those involved in her trial and imprisonment, for “all the support”.

“I’m very happy and thank you all a lot. I love you all,” Huong said in the letter shown by her lawyers at an airport press conference before her flight.

Huong’s whereabouts were not known, but Teh said immigration officials would escort her to the plane.

She will be accompanied by her lawyers and embassy officials on the flight to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, Teh said.

“The case has come to a complete end, as far as Doan is concerned,” he said, using Huong’s surname.

Huong’s co-accused, Siti Aisyah, was freed in March after prosecutors also dropped a murder charge against her.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the allegation.

Defense lawyers have maintained the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The women said they thought they were part of a reality prank show and did not know they were poisoning Kim.

Four North Korean men were also charged but they left Malaysia hours after the murder and remain at large.

Malaysia was criticized for charging the two women with murder – which carries a mandatory death penalty in the Southeast Asian nation – when the key perpetrators were still being sought.

Huong’s father, Doan Van Thanh, said he and her brother would be in Hanoi to welcome her home.

“I am so happy now, my whole village is happy now,” Thanh told Reuters by telephone.

“We will hold a party on Sunday and anyone can come and join the party. We will slaughter some pigs for the party. My daughter particularly likes fried fish, so we will prepare that too,” he said.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Additional reporting by Khanh Vu in HANOI; Writing by Joe Brock and Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

UK demands Russia explain nerve attack after two more people struck down

A police officer guards a cordoned off rubbish bin on Rolleston Street, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Salisbury, Britain, July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Alex Fraser and Henry Nicholls

AMESBURY, England (Reuters) – Britain demanded on Thursday that Russia provide details about the Novichok nerve agent attack on a former double agent and his daughter after two British citizens were struck down with the same poison.

The two Britons, a 44-year-old woman and a 45-year-old man, fell critically ill after handling what police called a contaminated item near the site of the March attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Britain has accused Russia of poisoning the Skripals with Novichok – a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military during the Cold War – in what is the first known offensive use of such a chemical weapon on European soil since World War Two.

Russia, which is currently hosting the soccer World Cup, has denied any involvement in the March incident and suggested the British security services had carried out that attack to stoke anti-Moscow hysteria.

“The eyes of the world are currently on Russia, not least because of the World Cup,” British Home Secretary Sajid Javid said. “It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains what has gone on.

“It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks and towns to be dumping grounds for poison,” he told parliament.

The Kremlin said Russia had offered Britain its assistance in investigating the nerve agent attack and had been rebuffed.

Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel during a visit to Berlin, said it was “deeply disturbing” that two more people had been exposed to Novichok, adding that her thoughts were with the people of the area.

MYSTERY

The two Britons taken ill on Saturday were initially thought to have taken an overdose of heroin or crack cocaine.

But tests by the Porton Down military research center showed they had been exposed to Novichok. Britain has notified the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

London police later said in a statement: “… we now know that they were exposed to the nerve agent after handling a contaminated item.” They did not elaborate.

Police have said the Skripals were poisoned after Novichok was applied in a liquid form to the front door of Sergei Skripal’s home in the city of Salisbury, 11 km (7 miles) south of Amesbury where the current incident occurred.

Skripal – a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service – and his daughter were found slumped unconscious on a park bench on March 4.

The latest pair however have nothing in their background to suggest a link to the world of espionage or to Russia.

“It is unbelievable that I am here to talk about another Novichok nerve agent incident in our county,” local police chief Keir Pritchard told reporters. “We’re working extremely hard to try to understand the circumstances, the chronology.”

Interior minister Javid said the substance that the two people were exposed to was the same variant of Novichok that struck down the Skripals.

However, officials said the working hypothesis was that the latest pair had been contaminated in a different location from areas visited by the former Russian agent and his daughter.

“The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of enquiry … but it is very important that we keep an open mind,” said Pritchard, adding that it was not yet clear whether the Novichok came from the same batch.

Paramedics were called on Saturday morning to a house in Amesbury after the woman, named by media as Dawn Sturgess, collapsed. They returned later in the day when the man, Charlie Rowley, also fell ill.

CONTAMINATION

Health chiefs said the risk to the public was low, repeating their earlier advice that the public should wash their clothes and use cleansing wipes on personal items.

But the exposure of two British citizens to such a dangerous nerve agent will stoke fears that Novichok could be lingering at sites around the ancient English city of Salisbury.

Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, said Novichok nerve agents were designed to be quite persistent and did not decompose quickly.

“That means that if a container or a surface was contaminated with this material it would remain a danger for a long time,” Sella said.

After the Skripal poisoning, police investigators in protective suits scoured Salisbury. They may return, police said.

The March attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War as allies sided with May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

Moscow hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain could know that Russia was responsible and offering rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Young, Kate Holton, Elizabeth Piper, William James and Kate Kelland in London, Andrew Osborn and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; editing by Gareth Jones and David Stamp)

Russia says it will respond in kind to West’s expulsions

A general view shows the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Russia March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana M

By Christian Lowe and Katya Golubkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it would respond in kind to the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by the West over the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.

What began as a row between London and Moscow after Britain accused Russia of using a nerve agent to poison Skripal and his daughter has now snowballed into an international chorus of rebuke for the Kremlin, with even some friendly governments ejecting Russian diplomats.

Adding to the list on Wednesday, Slovakia, Malta and Luxembourg each recalled their ambassador in Moscow for consultations, while Montenegro said it would expel a Russian diplomat. Slovakia and Montenegro, while both members of the U.S.-led NATO alliance, are traditionally close to Russia.

The biggest demarche came from the United States, which on Monday said it was expelling 60 Russian diplomats. That dented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes of forging a friendly relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Valentina Matviyenko, a Kremlin loyalist and speaker of the upper house of parliament, said Russia would retaliate.

“Without a doubt, Russia, as is diplomatic practice, will respond symmetrically and observe parity when it comes to the number of diplomats,” RIA news agency quoted her as saying.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said a Russian military aircraft had, for the first time since the Cold War, conducted a training flight via the North Pole to North America, RIA news agency reported.

There was no immediate indication that the flight was linked to Russia’s standoff with the West. The U.S. navy is holding a five-week training exercise in the Arctic Circle.

COLD WAR ECHOES

In total, more than 100 Russian diplomats are to be sent home from states ranging from Denmark to Australia, the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War.

Moscow has denied being behind the attack on the Skripals and says its adversaries are using it to whip up a campaign of “Russophobia.”

Skripal, 66, a double agent who was swapped in a spy exchange deal in 2010 and went to live in England, and Yulia Skripal, 33, were found unconscious on a public bench in a shopping center in Salisbury on March 4. They remain critically ill in hospital from the attack in which, British authorities say, a Soviet-era nerve toxin called Novichok was used.

Russia has already expelled 23 British diplomats, a tit-for-tat response to Britain’s expulsion of the same number of staff at the Russian embassy in London.

Adding to a drum beat of tough rhetoric coming from Moscow and London, the Russian foreign ministry raised the prospect British intelligence services had poisoned Skripal and his daughter.

“If convincing evidence to the contrary is not presented to the Russian side we will consider that we are dealing with an attempt on the lives of our citizens,” the ministry said in a statement.

In Australia, whose government said on Tuesday it would expel two diplomats, the Russian ambassador, Grigory Loginov, told reporters the world will enter into a “Cold War situation” if the West persists with its bias against Russia.

Two days after the United States announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats, there was still no sign of how exactly Russian planned to respond – an indication, perhaps, that the scale of the Western action caught Moscow off guard.

Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying Moscow would assess the level of hostility in Washington and London before deciding how to retaliate.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Soviet-era scientist says he helped create poison in UK spy attack row

ILE PHOTO: Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia August 9, 2006. Kommersant/Yuri Sen

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Cold War-era scientist acknowledged on Tuesday he had helped create the nerve agent that Britain says was used to poison an ex-spy and his daughter, contradicting Moscow’s insistence that neither Russia nor the Soviet Union ever had such a program.

However, Professor Leonid Rink told the RIA news agency that the attack did not look like Moscow’s work because Sergei and Yulia Skripal had not died immediately.

The Skripals remain alive but in critical condition more than two weeks after they were found unconscious in the English cathedral town of Salisbury. A policeman who helped them is also in hospital in a serious condition.

Rink said he worked under the Soviet Union at a chemical weapons facility where the Novichok military-grade nerve agent was developed. Asked if he was one of Novichok’s creators, he told RIA: “Yes. It was the basis for my doctoral dissertation.”

Moscow has denied any involvement in the Skripals’ case or that the Soviet Union or its successor state Russia developed Novichok at all.

Echoing a theory floated in Russian state media, Rink said the British could have been behind the attack.

“It’s hard to believe that the Russians were involved, given that all of those caught up in the incident are still alive,” he said. “Such outrageous incompetence by the alleged (Russian) spies would have simply been laughable and unacceptable.”

Inspectors from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog have begun examining the poison used in the attack which London blames on Moscow.

Rink told RIA he had worked at a Soviet chemicals weapons research facility in the town of Shikhany in Russia’s Saratov Region for 27 years until the early 1990s. Novichok was not a single substance, he said, but a system of using chemical weapons and had been called ‘Novichok-5’ by the Soviet Union.

“A big group of specialists in Shikhany and in Moscow worked on Novichok – on the technologies, toxicologies and biochemistry,” he said. “In the end we achieved very good results.”

Rink confessed to having secretly supplied a military-grade poison for cash that was used to murder a Russian banking magnate and his secretary in 1995. In a statement to investigators after his arrest, viewed by Reuters, Rink said he was in possession of poisons created as part of the chemical weapons program which he stored in his garage.

Rink received a one-year suspended prison sentence for “misuse of powers” after a secret trial, according to a lawyer involved in the case.

‘HEIGHT OF IDIOCY’

Rink told RIA it would have been absurd for Russian spies to have used Novichok to try to kill the Skripals because of its obviously Russian origin and Russian name.

“There are lots of more suitable substances,” he said. “To fire the equivalent of a powerful rocket at someone who is not a threat and to miss would be the height of idiocy.”

He dismissed British media reports that Yulia Skripal could have unwittingly carried Novichok from Moscow as “utter nonsense”, saying Novichok would not have survived the journey.

Once secret, Rink said the technology behind Novichok was now known to many countries including Britain, the United States and China, who he said were capable of manufacturing a version of Novichok.

However, he said the exact formula devised by the Soviet Union was unique and that it should be possible, based on a sample of the toxin used in the Salisbury attack, to say it was not “cooked up” in Russia.

Another Russian scientist called Vil Mirzayanov had done a lot to publicize the formulas used to produce Novichok, Rink said.

Mirzayanov, who now lives in the United States, told Reuters this month that only the Russian government could have carried out the attack.

Rink said he knew of “about five” scientists familiar with the Novichok technology who had left Russia in the 1990s.

“Permission to let them leave generated great surprise in our institute,” Rink told RIA.

(Corrects in third para to “two weeks” from “three weeks”.)

(Editing by David Stamp)