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Trial begins over assassination of N. Korea leader's half-brother

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Shah Alam (Malaysia) (AFP)

Two women go on trial Monday accused of murdering the half-brother of North Korea's leader, in an audacious assassination in Malaysia that stunned the world and sparked a diplomatic crisis.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong arrived at the heavily guarded court outside the capital Kuala Lumpur for the proceedings, handcuffed and wearing bulletproof vests.

The defendants were arrested just days after the killing of Kim Jong-Nam on February 13 as he waited to board a plane to Macau at Kuala Lumpur airport.

The women, both in their 20s, are accused of rubbing toxic VX nerve agent in his face.

Kim died an agonising death about 20 minutes after the hit, which was caught on airport CCTV as the VX -- a chemical so deadly it is listed as a weapon of mass destruction -- rapidly overcame his central nervous system.

The murder sparked an angry row between North Korea and Malaysia, which had been one of Pyongyang's few allies amid global alarm over the country's atomic weapons programme, with both countries expelling each other's ambassadors.

The women -- who face the death penalty if convicted -- are expected to plead not guilty at the start of the trial. The pair claim they were duped into believing they were taking part in a prank for a reality TV show.

Defence lawyers are convinced the real culprits have left Malaysia and that the women's innocence will be proven in court.

"We are fairly confident that at the end of trial, they will probably be acquitted," Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, a lawyer for Huong, told AFP.

About 200 police officers had been deployed to guard Shah Alam High Court, where the trial will take place. The defendants arrived in a convoy of police cars with their sirens blaring.

The diminutive pair bowed their heads as they were led into court past waiting journalists.

- Mysterious murder -

The trial could at last shed light on the many unanswered questions surrounding the murder.

These range from how two women living precarious existences among Malaysia's army of migrant workers allegedly became involved in a high-profile assassination, to how a lethal nerve agent was deployed in an airport and killed Kim but harmed no one else.

South Korea accuses the North of being behind the murder of Kim Jong-Un's estranged half-brother, who had voiced criticism of the regime after falling from grace and going to live in exile overseas.

The North denies the allegation.

The run-up to the trial has been marked by fierce criticism from the women's lawyers who say they are figures of convenience.

Some North Korean figures linked to the plot fled Malaysia immediately after the assassination, while others were allowed to leave the country later to ease the diplomatic crisis.

The women's legal teams also accuse prosecutors of dragging their heels on handing over key material required to mount a defence.

Prosecutors -- who insist the women will get a fair trial -- will lay out their case over two months and call 30 to 40 witnesses. The defence is then likely to be called.

After the assassination sent the diplomatic temperature soaring between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur, tensions only eased when Malaysia agreed to return Kim's body.

An Asian Cup football qualifier between Malaysia and North Korea was postponed amid the crisis, and delayed this week for a third time after Kuala Lumpur imposed a ban on travel to North Korea due to surging nuclear tensions.

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