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Politics

How release of suspect in Kim Jong Nam murder helps Widodo

Opposition frets Indonesian president may use high profile case in election

Siti Aisyah, right, who was accused of killing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother in Malaysia, thanks Indonesian President Joko Widodo at a meeting at the presidential palace in Jakarta on March 12.   © AP

JAKARTA -- Indonesian President Joko Widodo may have improved his re-election chances in April's presidential contest following the release of an Indonesian woman accused of killing the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Widodo has won praise for winning the release of Siti Aisyah from Malaysia on March 11, amid widespread public feeling that she was tricked into assassinating Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017 in what Aisyah said she thought was a prank.

Aisyah, who returned to Indonesia on March 11 for the first time since her arrest in Malaysia following the sensational murder, met Widodo at the presidential place on Tuesday. The president told Aisyah that her release demonstrated the government's commitment to protect Indonesian citizens.

Although Aisyah made no comment on the day, she expressed her gratitude to Widodo on March 11.

Aisyah was released after Malaysian prosecutors dropped the charges against her. Widodo's government had repeatedly pressed for her release.

By contrast, a Malaysian high court on Thursday decided to restart the trial of Aisyah's Vietnamese co-defendant, Doan Thi Huong, despite a diplomatic push by Vietnam to have her freed.

The public response in Indonesia to Aisyah's release has been largely favorable to Widodo. The newspaper Kompas and the English-language Jakarta Post detailed the government's negotiations with Malaysia on Aisyah's behalf in front-page reports. TV news also covered Aisyah's reunion with her family.

The Indonesian government had lobbied for Aisyah's release for two years, said Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly. Widodo also reportedly called Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to ask that she be freed.

Murder is a capital offense in Malaysia, and if Aisyah had been executed Widodo would have faced harsh public criticism.

Senior officials from Widodo's government deny the effort to free Aisyah was driven by politics, but they have been open about their effort to influence the outcome of the legal process in Malaysia. The Jakarta Post noted that the timing of the release was good for Widodo's electoral prospects.

Opposition parties welcomed Aisyah's release but warned that the case should not be used politically, fearing that Widodo would take advantage of the release to extend his lead in the polls.

Aisyah was arrested along with Huong based on airport video footage of the attack on Kim Jong Nam, who was poisoned with VX gas, a nerve agent.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said Aisyah was tricked by North Korean agents into killing Kim. Public opinion in Indonesia has been sympathetic to her from the beginning, leading to calls for the government to work for her release.

Indonesian officials pressed the issue in late February, pleading with their Malaysian counterparts to drop the charges against Aisyah. They stressed that she had been manipulated by the North Koreans and received no payment for the killing.

Malaysian prosecutors said on March 11 they decided to drop the charges against Aisyah after taking the importance of good relations between Malaysia and Indonesia into account.

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