Residents take coronavirus surveillance into their own hands

By Thin Lei Win and Beh Lih Yi

ROME/KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A week after Malaysia ordered a partial lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, construction supervisor Hafi Nazhan saw residents in his affluent Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood jogging outside.

He took photos of people flouting the stay-at-home order and published them on Twitter, receiving hundreds of shares. Hafi’s followers informed the police, who subsequently arrested 11 joggers in his neighbourhood.

They were charged with violating the movement restriction order and each fined 1,000 ringgit ($230) in court.

“I was upset some people did not take this stay-at-home order seriously. These are well-educated people,” Hafi, 26, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that police were spurred into taking action after his tweets went viral.

As governments around the world urge citizens to stay indoors to contain the deadly virus, concerned communities are taking surveillance matters into their own hands, reporting alleged breaches of quarantine and questioning anyone they deem suspicious.

The respiratory disease – which emerged in China late last year – has infected roughly 1.2 million people and killed about 65,000, according to a global tally by Johns Hopkins University.

In Singapore, a Facebook post by a man sharing a photo of himself enjoying a bowl of bak kut teh – pork rib soup – in a restaurant when he should be self-quarantining at home was so widely circulated that officials stepped in.

Singapore’s law minister ordered an investigation and the immigration authorities told local media the man was likely to be charged, although they did not respond to requests seeking comment.

In New Zealand, which is under a one-month shutdown, a police website set up to allow residents to report their neighbours who break isolation rules crashed hours after going live.

The website has received about 14,000 reports in less than a week since its March 29 launch, New Zealand police said in an email. They reportedly include people playing frisbee and holding parties.

In Italy, which has been under lockdown for weeks, fraying tempers have led to people being insulted from balconies or photographed and put on social media.

In Spain, locals have also begun posting videos of people going for a run, walking in the park, riding a bike – all prohibited activities – on social media.

HEALTH VS. PRIVACY

Such tip-offs and videos have sparked a debate over digital ethics with some arguing that normal privacy rules do not apply in a health emergency because the information is in the public interest.

“When we are all threatened with the risk of catching a lethal, incurable disease I see no reason why individuals should not report their legitimate concerns to the authorities,” said David Watts, former privacy commissioner for Australia’s Victoria state.

“There is not much point having privacy rights when you are dead,” added Watts, who now teaches information law and policy at Melbourne-based La Trobe University.

For David Lindsay, law professor at the University of Technology Sydney, privacy is “not an absolute right and must always be balanced against other rights and interests”.

“The balance struck obviously depends upon circumstances, and a global pandemic is an extreme event,” he said.

Still, both Watts and Lindsay said the balance between privacy and surveillance should be reset when the pandemic is over.

Others, like Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, fear surveillance measures ranging from facial recognition to phone tracking could outlast the current crisis.

“Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week.

STIGMA AND FEAR

Community surveillance could also end up being used “in a malicious way, particularly to replicate prejudice or bias”, warned Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at digital rights group Access Now.

“Often the people who might be reported on will be the least privileged, or might be belong to, in the case of India, lower caste communities or people who have to work outside,” he said.

Human rights experts worry that the tens of thousands of migrant workers who returned to Myanmar after a shutdown in neighbouring Thailand’s left them jobless will come under intense scrutiny.

In a village in central Myanmar, locals would not allow a young man who returned from Thailand to stay in his home, said Khin Zaw Win, a Yangon-based political analyst.

Foreigners have also been targeted on social media, with a Facebook video showing agitated residents in a neighbourhood in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, who described barging into a building after seeing Chinese visitors coughing.

Filmed Tuesday night, it has received more than 1 million views and 10,000 shares.

“The public is being very sensitive at the moment … when the key in this kind of situation is that you should help each other,” said Khin Zaw Win.

“Some of it have to do with the narrative that (coronavirus) was brought here from abroad. I think the panic is even scarier than the virus,” he added.

Myanmar so far has about 20 confirmed cases of the virus, with the health ministry warning of a “major outbreak” after the return of migrant workers from Thailand.

Officials have also reminded the public that failure to report people suspected of being infected could lead to jail sentences of up to a month.

“From the point of view of public health, surveillance and tracking is essential. The faster and the more effectively you can enforce it, the better,” said Sid Naing, Myanmar country director for health charity Marie Stopes International.

“But it should not be done in a way that breeds hatred and fear. It should be done based on understanding and support,” he said.

“At the moment, the state cannot provide full surveillance so people started doing it themselves because they are terrified … but there are stigma and discrimination behind the fear and those are the problems.”

(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink and Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, additional reporting from Sophie Davies in Barcelona, editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Virus fight at risk as world’s medical glove capital struggles with lockdown

By Liz Lee and Krishna N. Das

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Disposable rubber gloves are indispensable in the global fight against the new coronavirus, yet a month’s lockdown in stricken Malaysia where three of every five gloves are made has upended the supply chain and threatens to hamstring hospitals worldwide.

The world’s biggest maker of medical gloves by volume, Top Glove Corp Bhd, has the capacity to make 200 million gloves a day, but a supplier shutdown has left it with only two weeks’ worth of boxes to ship them in, its founder told Reuters.

“We can’t get our gloves to hospitals without cartons,” Executive Chairman Lim Wee Chai said in an interview. “Hospitals need our gloves. We can’t just supply 50% of their requirement.”

The virus, which emerged in China at the end of last year, has left Malaysia with the highest number of infections in Southeast Asia at nearly 1,800 cases, with 17 deaths. To halt transmission, the government has ordered people to stay home from March 18 to April 14.

Glove makers and others eligible for exemption can operate half-staffed provided they meet strict safety conditions. Still, the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (MARGMA) said it was lobbying “almost every hour” to return the industry to full strength to minimize risk to the global fight.

“We’re shut down,” said Evonna Lim, managing director at packaging supplier Etheos Imprint Technology. “We fall under an exempted category but still need approval.”

Dr Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist at the New York University School of Medicine, said she was using up to six times as many gloves as normal each day due to the number of patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

“If we get to the point where there is a shortage of gloves, that’s going to be a huge problem because then we cannot draw blood safely, we cannot do many medical procedures safely.”

GLOBAL CALL

With glove supplies dwindling, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on its website this month said some gloves could be used beyond their designated shelf life. On Tuesday, the United States lifted a ban on imports from Malaysian glove maker WRP Asia Pacific who it had previously accused of using forced labor.

Britain’s Department of Health & Social Care has urged Malaysian authorities to prioritize the production and shipment of gloves that are of “utmost criticality for fighting COVID-19,” showed a letter dated March 20 to glove maker Supermax Corp and shared with Reuters.

MARGMA is considering rationing due to the “extremely high demand,” its president Denis Low told Reuters. “You can produce as many gloves as you can but then there’s nothing to pack them into.”

Under normal circumstances, Top Glove can meet less than 40% of its own packaging needs. For the remainder, it said just 23% of suppliers have gained approval to operate at half strength.

“We are lobbying almost every hour, we are putting in a lot of letters to the ministry,” said Low. “We are lobbying hard for the chemical suppliers and we want to ensure that the printers are also being given approval and any other supporting services, even transportation.”

In a statement, MARGMA said that as they were having to rely on half of their staff to work overtime during the lockdown, costs would rise by up to 30% and that buyers had agreed to bear that.

Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry on Tuesday said it had received masses of applications to operate through the lockdown, and that it was seeking cooperation from industries to give way to those producing essential goods.

AUTOMATION

Developed economies are home to only a fifth of the world’s population yet account for nearly 70% medical glove demand due to stringent medical standards. At 150, U.S. glove consumption per-capita is 20 times that of China, latest MARGMA data showed.

MARGMA expects demand to jump 16% to 345 billion gloves this year, with Malaysia’s market share rising two percentage points to 65%. Thailand usually follows at about 18% and China at 9%.

Top Glove said orders have doubled since February and it sees sales rising by a fifth in the next six months. Its stock, with a market value of about $3.5 billion, has risen by a third this year versus a fall of 16% in the wider market.

The company, with customers in 195 economies, registered the highest net money inflow last week among listed Malaysian firms, along with peer Hartalega Holdings Bhd, showed MIDF Research data. Other glove makers include Kossan Rubber Industries Bhd and Careplus Group Bhd.

“We are fortunate enough to be in essential goods,” said Lim. “These few months and at least the next six months will be an all-time high in terms of sales volume, revenue and profit.”

With more than 80% of its 44 factories worldwide automated, Top Glove itself is less impacted by the lockdown than its more labor-intensive domestic suppliers. Packaging woes aside, however, ramping up production could turn under-supply into over-supply when the coronavirus outbreak finally subsides.

“This outbreak will create awareness and make humankind healthier,” said Lim. “People will pay more attention, they will invest more, they will buy more so demand will be more.”

(Reporting by Liz Lee and Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Ebrahim Harris and Daveena Kaur; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

How mass pilgrimage at Malaysian mosque became coronavirus hotspot

By A. Ananthalakshmi and Joseph Sipalan

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Worshippers slept in packed tents outside the golden-domed mosque, waking before dawn to kneel on rows of prayer mats laid out in its cavernous central hall. All the while, the coronavirus was passing unnoticed among the guests.

The Muslim gathering held at the end of last month at a sprawling mosque complex on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur has emerged as a source of hundreds of new coronavirus infections spanning Southeast Asia.

A 34-year-old Malaysian man who attended the event died on Tuesday, Malaysia’s Minister of Health Adham Baba said, the first death linked to the Feb. 27-March 1 event at the Sri Petaling mosque compound.

It was attended by 16,000 people, including 1,500 foreigners.

Out of Malaysia’s 673 confirmed coronavirus cases, nearly two-thirds are linked to the four-day meeting, Adham said. It is not clear who brought the virus there in the first place.

Reuters spoke to six attendees and reviewed pictures and posts on social media, and the accounts and evidence showed several ways in which the outbreak could have spread.

The hosts, the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jama’at, which traces its roots back to India a century ago, on Monday suspended missionary activities but did not comment directly on the Malaysian event.

Tablighi Jama’at did not respond to a request for further comment. The mosque where the event was held was closed on Tuesday and a guest said he was one of dozens of worshippers still there under quarantine. Calls to the mosque went unanswered.

Malaysia plans to shut its borders, restrict internal movement and close schools, universities and most businesses, as it seeks to control its coronavirus outbreak. All mosques will be closed for two weeks.

“I was very surprised actually that it went ahead,” said Surachet Wae-asae, a former Thai lawmaker who attended the event but has since tested negative for the coronavirus after returning home.

“But in Malaysia God is very important. The belief is strong.”

The prime minister’s office and the health ministry declined to comment further about the event.

HOLDING HANDS, SHARING PLATES

The packed gathering, where guests had to take shuttle buses to sleep at other venues, was attended by nationals from dozens of countries, including Canada, Nigeria, India and Australia, according to an attendee list posted on social media.

There were also citizens of China and South Korea – two countries with high rates of coronavirus infections.

Social media posts show hundreds of worshippers praying shoulder-to-shoulder inside the mosque, while some guests posted selfies as they shared food.

It was not clear how many guests were residents of Malaysia, but cases linked to the gathering are popping up daily across Southeast Asia.

“We sat close to each other,” a 30-year-old Cambodian man who attended the event told Reuters from a hospital in Cambodia’s Battambang province, where he was being treated after testing positive for the coronavirus on Monday.

“Holding hands at the religious ceremony was done with people of many countries. When I met people, I held hands, it was normal. I don’t know who I was infected by,” he said, asking not to be named due to fears of discrimination at his mosque.

None of the event leaders talked about washing hands, the coronavirus or health precautions during the event, but most guests washed their hands regularly, two guests said. Washing hands among other parts of the body is part of Muslim worship.

Another attendee from Cambodia said guests from different countries shared plates when meals were served.

Only half of the Malaysian participants who attended have come forward for testing, the health minister has said, raising fears that the outbreak from the mosque could be more far-reaching.

Brunei has confirmed 50 cases linked to the mosque gathering, out of a total of 56 cases. Singapore has announced five linked to the event, Cambodia 13 and Thailand at least two.

Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, which had nearly 700 of its citizens attend, are all investigating.

That a large religious pilgrimage should have gone ahead, at a time when the epidemic had killed 2,700 people and was spreading from Italy to Iran, has drawn criticism.

More than 182,000 people have now been infected by the coronavirus globally and 7,165 have died.

‘IRRESPONSIBLE’

“That Tablighi event in KL (Kuala Lumpur) … could also cause a regional spike and it was irresponsible for the authorities to have allowed it to be held,” Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said on his Facebook page.

It is not the only religious event to spread the virus on a mass scale. Thousands of cases in South Korea are linked to services of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu.

At the time of the event in Malaysia, the country was in political turmoil. The country had a one-man government in the 94-year-old interim prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had quit and was temporarily re-appointed the same day.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as the new premier on March 1 and banned mass gatherings on March 13. Prior to that, there was only advice from the health ministry to minimize public exposure.

Some attendees defended the event, saying that at the time the situation in Malaysia – which had announced 25 known cases by Feb. 28 – was not severe.

“We were not worried then as the COVID-19 situation at the time appeared under control,” said Khuzaifah Kamazlan, a 34-year-old religious teacher based in Kuala Lumpur who attended the event but has tested negative for the coronavirus.

Khuzaifah said some of the worshippers who attended the event have since refused to be tested for coronavirus, preferring to rely on God to protect them.

Karim, a 44-year-old Malaysian who attended the gathering and was later tested positive for coronavirus, says the government should have canceled the event.

“We are a bit disappointed that this outbreak has been blamed entirely on us. That view is unfair. There was no ban on our gathering,” said Karim, who gave only his first name.

“Now I am concerned because I am positive. Please pray for me.”

(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi and Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff, Krishna N. Das and Liz Lee in Kuala Lumpur, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Panu Wongcha-um and Kay Johnson in Bangkok, Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila and Fathin Ungku in Singapore; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Dozens of Rohingya face charges for illegal travel in Myanmar after fleeing Rakhine state

YANGON (Reuters) – Dozens of Rohingya Muslims, including two children, appeared in court in Myanmar on Friday, the latest group to face charges after attempting to flee conflict-torn Rakhine state.

The group of about 20 were among 54 people from the Rohingya minority arrested on Wednesday on the outskirts of the commercial capital Yangon while trying to leave for Malaysia, according to judge Thida Aye.

“The immigration officer submitted the case because they found no identification cards from these people,” she told Reuters.

Some were barefoot, others clothed in colorful head-scarfs, as they were ushered into the small courtroom in Yangon. A small boy was naked from the waist down.

Defense lawyer Nay Myo Zar said they had fled Rakhine state, the western region where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions and have come under increasing pressure as government troops battle ethnic rebels.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017 to escape a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators have said was carried out with “genocidal intent” and included mass killings and rapes.

Myanmar says the army was fighting a legitimate counter-insurgency campaign against militants who attacked security posts.

Some 600,000 Rohingya remain in the country, confined to camps and villages where they are unable to travel freely or access healthcare and education. The vast majority lack citizenship.

The government says it is working on a national strategy to close camps and that Rohingya would not face movement restrictions if they accepted a so-called national verification card, which many reject, saying it labels them foreigners.

Rakhine state has for the past year been rocked by increasingly intense clashes between government troops and fighters from the Arakan Army, an insurgent group comprised of ethnic Rakhine, another mostly Buddhist minority.

Myanmar’s army said in a statement on Friday it would hold more court-martials over alleged abuses against Rohingya Muslims, after a government-appointed commission concluded soldiers committed war crimes.

For years, Rohingya on both sides of the border have attempted to flee for Thailand and Malaysia, some boarding boats organized by smugglers, a dangerous journey that has cost many lives.

On Thursday, 93 Rohingya arrested in November after they were found on a beach in the Irrawaddy delta region appeared in a separate court to face charges of traveling illegally, Radio Free Asia reported.

Hundreds more have been imprisoned in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

(Reporting by Yangon bureau; Editing by Ros Russell)

Malaysia never ruled out ‘murder-suicide plot’ by MH370 pilot, says former PM Najib

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia has never ruled out the possibility that missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have been downed by a suicidal pilot, the country’s former prime minister Najib Razak said on Wednesday.

Najib, who was premier when MH370 vanished with 239 people on board nearly six years ago, was responding to remarks by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott that Malaysian leaders had considered from the outset that flight captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah may have committed mass murder.

“My very clear understanding from the very top levels of the Malaysian government is that from very, very early on here, they thought it was a murder-suicide by the pilot,” Abbott said in a clip from a Sky News documentary on the tragedy airing Wednesday.

Najib told online news portal Free Malaysia Today that Malaysian officials had considered such a scenario during their investigation but had chosen not to make their views public.

“It would have been deemed unfair and legally irresponsible since the black boxes and cockpit voice recorders had not been found and hence, there was no conclusive proof whether the pilot was solely or jointly responsible,” Najib was quoted as saying.

“Again I must stress that this possible scenario was never ruled out during the search effort and investigations, where no effort was spared.”

A spokesman for Najib confirmed his remarks.

Malaysia’s transport ministry declined to comment. Authorities had previously said there was nothing suspicious in the captain’s background, training or mental health, but did not rule out the possibility that the aircraft had been deliberately taken off course.

Najib said there were several reasons for authorities to suspect Zaharie’s involvement, including his ownership of a home flight simulator and findings showing that MH370’s transponders were switched off shortly after the plane left Malaysian airspace.

Flight MH370 became one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries when it disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.

Malaysia, China, and Australia, called off a two-year, A$200 million ($130 million) underwater search in the southern Indian Ocean in January 2017 after finding no trace of the aircraft.

A second three-month search, led by U.S. firm Ocean Infinity, ended similarly in May 2018.

Najib lost a general election that month. He is now facing dozens of corruption charges over alleged involvement in a multibillion-dollar scandal at a state fund in which he has plead not guilty.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

North Korean leader’s slain half-brother was a CIA informant: Wall Street Journal

FILE PHOTO - Kim Jong Nam arrives at Beijing airport in Beijing, China, in this photo taken by Kyodo February 11, 2007. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who was killed in Malaysia in 2017, had been an informant for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

The Journal cited an unnamed “person knowledgeable about the matter” for the report, and said many details of Kim Jong Nam’s relationship with the CIA remained unclear.

Reuters could not independently confirm the story. The CIA declined to comment.

The Journal quoted the person as saying “There was a nexus” between the CIA and Kim Jong Nam.

“Several former U.S. officials said the half brother, who had lived outside of North Korea for many years and had no known power base in Pyongyang, was unlikely to be able to provide details of the secretive country’s inner workings,” the Journal said.

The former officials also said Kim Jong Nam had been almost certainly in contact with security services of other countries, particularly China’s, the Journal said.

Kim Jong Nam’s role as a CIA informant is mentioned in a new book about Kim Jong Un, “The Great Successor,” by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield that is due to be published on Tuesday. Fifield says Kim Jong Nam usually met his handlers in Singapore and Malaysia, citing a source with knowledge of the intelligence.

The book says that security camera footage from Kim Jong Nam’s last trip to Malaysia showed him in a hotel elevator with an Asian-looking man who was reported to be a U.S. intelligence agent. It said his backpack contained $120,000 in cash, which could have been payment for intelligence-related activities, or earnings from his casino businesses.

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

Two women were charged with poisoning Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Malaysia released Doan Thi Huong, who is Vietnamese, in May, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah in March.

According to the Journal, the person said Kim Jong Nam had traveled to Malaysia in February 2017 to meet his CIA contact, although that may not have been the sole purpose of the trip.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have met twice, in Hanoi in February and Singapore last June, seeming to build personal goodwill but failing to agree on a deal to lift U.S. sanctions in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear and missile programs.

(This story has been refiled to correct “Ki’s” to “his” in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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)

Malaysia frees Indonesian woman accused of Kim Jong Nam’s poisoning

Siti Aisyah, who was previously a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam reacts as she arrives in news conference, after a Malaysian court released her of charges at Halim Perdanakusuma airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – An Indonesian woman accused in the 2017 chemical poison murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother was freed on Monday after a Malaysian court dropped the charge in a case that drew suspicions of being a political assassination.

As the court announced its decision, Siti Aisyah, 26, turned to her Vietnamese co-defendant, Doan Thi Huong, 30, in the dock and the two women, who had been facing the death penalty together, embraced in tears.

They had been accused of poisoning Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Following the dramatic decision to release Siti Aisyah, a defense lawyer asked for an adjournment in the case against Huong in order to submit a request that charges be dropped against her too.

Defense lawyers have maintained that the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur was defaced with graffiti just hours before the trial was to resume, authorities said.

Interpol had issued a red notice for four North Koreans who were identified as suspects by Malaysian police and had left the country hours after the murder.

During the trial, the court was shown CCTV footage of two women allegedly assaulting Kim Jong Nam while he prepared to check in for a flight.

Siti Aisyah, who had worked as a masseuse at a hotel in the Malaysian capital, and Huong, who described herself as an actress, had maintained that they believed they had been hired to participate in a reality TV prank show.

Once the court released her, Siti Aisyah, wearing a black traditional Malay dress and headscarf, was rushed to the Indonesian embassy, where she spoke briefly with journalists.

“I feel so happy. I did not expect that today I would be released,” Siti Aisyah said, adding that she was healthy and had been treated well in prison.

Prosecutors told the court that they had been instructed to withdraw the charge against Siti Aisyah. No reason was given.

While the court discharged Siti Aisyah from the case, it rejected her lawyer’s request for a full acquittal, as it said that the trial had already established a prima facie case and she could be recalled if fresh evidence emerged.

The defense had disputed whether the CCTV footage was clear enough to identify the Indonesian woman as an assailant, or establish what she had done to the victim.

Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, said his client was “a scapegoat”.

“I still believe that North Korea had something to do with it,” Gooi said.

Kim Jong Nam had lived in exile in Macau for several years before the killing, having fled his homeland after his half-brother became North Korea’s leader in 2011 following their father’s death.

Some South Korean lawmakers 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 accusation.

NOT OVER YET FOR HUONG

Left to stand trial by herself after Siti Aisyah’s release, Huong was still sobbing as she prepared to take the stand on Monday at the start of her defense. But the court agreed to resume proceedings on Thursday instead, pending a reply from the attorney-general to the request that charges against her also be withdrawn.

“Where is the principle of equality? Both of them were charged on the same evidence, the defense was called on fairly the same grounds,” said Salim Bashir, one of Huong’s lawyers.

“Until today, we do not know what were the exceptional circumstances that were needed for the attorney-general to review the charge against Siti Aisyah. The prosecution never advanced a single ground for the withdrawal.”

Although the two women were being tried together, the cases against them were separate, and the court had asked the Indonesian woman to present her defense first.

Siti Aisyah’s trial was suspended in December as her lawyers argued with prosecutors over access to statements made by seven witnesses.

Prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad told Reuters the decision to withdraw the charge against her was made based on “several representations”, without elaborating.

Siti Aisyah flew back to Jakarta on Monday, accompanied by Indonesian Law Minister Yasonna H. Laoly.

Laoly said Siti Aisyah’s release, after over two years in prison, was the result of high-level diplomacy by his government, including meetings with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the attorney-general.

“After studying the case thoroughly, we sent letters to the Attorney-General of Malaysia and met with him and Prime Minister Mahathir last August,” Laoly told reporters with Siti Aisyah shortly after landing in Jakarta.

Laoly had written to Malaysia’s attorney-general, laying the blame on North Korea.

“Miss Aisyah was deceived and had no awareness whatsoever that she was being used as an intelligence tool of North Korea,” he wrote.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in JAKARTA; writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

Chemical arms watchdog wins right to assign blame for attacks

The logo of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is seen during a special session in the Hague, Netherlands June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The world’s chemical weapons watchdog won new powers on Wednesday to assign blame for attacks with banned toxic munitions, a diplomatic victory for Britain just months after a former Russian spy was poisoned on its territory.

In a special session, member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted in favor of a British-led proposal by a 82-24 margin, easily reaching the two-thirds majority needed for it to succeed.

The motion was supported by the United States and European Union, but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria and their allies.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the vote would empower the OPCW “not just to identify the use of chemical weapons but also the to point the finger at the organization, the state that they think is responsible.”

“That’s crucial if we are going to deter the use of these vile weapons.”

Russia said that the vote called the future of the organization itself into question.

“The OPCW is a Titanic which is leaking and has started to sink,” Industry Minister Georgy Kalamanov told reporters.

“A lot of the countries that voted against the measure are starting to think about how the organization will exist and function in the future,” he told reporters.

Though the use of chemical weapons is illegal under international law, the taboo on deploying them has been eroding after their repeated use in the Syrian civil war, but also in Iraq, Malaysia and Britain since 2012.

The poisoning of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Moscow and the West and was one reason for Britain’s push to strengthen the OPCW. Russia has denied any involvement in their poisoning.

From 2015 to 2017 a joint United Nations-OPCW team had been appointed to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria. It found that Syrian government troops used nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on several occasions, while Islamic State militants were found to have used sulfur mustard.

But at a deadlocked U.N. Security Council, the joint team was disbanded last year after Moscow used its veto to block several resolutions seeking to renew its mandate.

The British proposal declares the OPCW will be empowered to attribute blame for attacks, though details of how it will do so will still need to be further defined by the organizations’ members.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch. Additional reporting by Toby Sterling, Editing by Jon Boyle)