First published in theborneopost by Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin

FOR years now, it has become the norm that when a group of senior diplomats, businesspeople or civil society activists assemble to discuss Malaysia, among the first topics of conversation will be alleged criminal acts that have occurred in the country but which may have international ramifications. This general theme has continued, but the details of the case have very much changed, since the murder of a man the world has assumed to be Kim Jong-Nam on 13 February at klia 2.

By now most readers will have already seen the CCTV footage of a suspect walking up to the supposed victim from behind and covering his face, his subsequent request for help from airport staff followed by the (apparently rather relaxed) walk to the clinic.  The photo of him slumped on a chair has also featured in respectable news sites around the world, and the revelation that VX nerve agent was used generated another round of international news analysis.

This seemed to boil down to three main points: firstly, that perceived threats to the leadership in North Korea will not be tolerated and will be eliminated even on foreign soil; secondly, the finding that VX nerve agent was used – a substance banned by international agreements and not easy to produce – suggests an intention from a high-level and well-resourced individual for the killing to be quick and undetectable; which ties in to the third point that perhaps the response from Malaysian authorities was more vigorous than what was expected.

Indeed, the response by Malaysian authorities (particularly the police and health ministry) has received some commendation, from the arrests of suspects, the extra security at the morgue, the identification of the complex toxin and a robust diplomatic response from Wisma Putra — apparently met with approval by members of the governing coalition who organised an enthusiastic anti-North Korean demonstration. Among the biggest criticisms is that the airport was not thoroughly checked for hazardous substances earlier, but from here on there will probably be greater curiosity about the whereabouts of – and inability to capture – the remaining suspects that the police have expressed an interest in.

That curiosity will increase as two of the suspects, Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, have now been charged with murder.  That phrase seems inevitably coupled, in the international news media at least, with ‘which carries the mandatory death penalty.’

The story that they thought they were taking part in a television prank has already been rebutted by the Inspector General of Police, who said they knew what they were doing since they washed their hands after the act, and one of the women reportedly suffered symptoms consistent with exposure to VX.

Still, the comments sections of reports about their being charged are mixed: with many commentators believing the CCTV evidence is firm enough and they should hang, while another common theory is that they were duped, and even if they are punished, the severest punishment should be reserved for those who masterminded the murder. And, as expected with any big cross-border story, there are also conspiracy theories which suggest that some sort of deal is being done behind the scenes.

Within Malaysia, there has recently been a resurgence on debate about the mandatory death penalty.

The ideological opposition to the death penalty is strongly put: that no crime warrants the taking of another life, and the possibility of a mistake in the criminal justice system that might send an innocent person to death is still too great, in addition to statistics that opponents use to show that it does not work as a deterrent.  In recent years there have been statements from Malaysian government ministers and the Attorney General’s Chambers that have suggested that the mandatory death penalty might be reviewed, and there were even rumours about a moratorium.  But as the officeholders have changed, the status of all this is unclear.

It is of course right that people who strongly believe in policy or legislative reform should exercise their democratic rights to lobby for such change, but if and until they happen, the courts will continue to pass such verdicts which may be unanimously upheld at every stage of the appeals process. Particularly where murders are especially heinous, the families of the victims may expect and demand that justice be served with the full application of the punishment that the law mandates.

We still don’t know whether the family of Kim Jong-Nam will surface, let alone make a statement, but the delivery of justice by the Malaysian courts amidst this geopolitical quagmire will certainly be closely watched by the international community.

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