Vietnam bar owner said to have arranged meeting of suspects in Kim Jong Nam killing

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

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Vietnamese bar owner was asked to act in a video prank show by a man wanted for the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s half-brother, but declined the offer, a Malaysian court heard on Wednesday.

In a sworn statement, the bar owner, identified as Nguyen Bich Thuy, said she then introduced the man to a friend and former colleague, Doan Thi Huong, a woman now facing trial in Malaysia for the killing.

Vietnamese Huong is accused with another woman, Siti Aisyah, an Indonesian, of smearing Kim’s face with VX, a lethal nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur international airport on Feb. 13 last year.

Defence lawyers say Huong and Siti Aisyah thought they were playing pranks for a reality show and did not know they were poisoning Kim.

A man who called himself Li had approached Thuy at her bar in Hanoi in December 2016, Thuy said in her affidavit, presented in court by Huong's lawyer, Hisyam Teh.

Li, who spoke fluent Vietnamese and said he was the child of Vietnamese and Korean parents, told Thuy he was hiring actresses for short films and offered her a role.

After she refused, she called Huong, who had previously worked with her at another bar, and asked her to meet Li, Thuy said.

"I remembered that Huong loved making films so I introduced Huong to him," she said in the affidavit made available to reporters after the hearing.

Teh submitted Thuy's affidavit during questioning of Wan Azirul Che Wan Aziz, Malaysia's lead police investigator on the case. Wan Azirul had earlier admitted he had not sought witnesses in Vietnam to verify Huong's account to police.

Teh accused police officials of being biased in their investigation, saying Wan Azirul could have either travelled to Hanoi himself or obtained assistance from Vietnamese authorities to question Thuy.

"Because you did not take these steps…this failure has been prejudicial to the accused's case," Teh said.

Malaysian police have since identified Li as North Korean Ri Ji Hyon. Ri is among four North Korean men caught on airport cameras fleeing Malaysia on the day of the killing, and Interpol alerts have been issued for their arrest.

Defence lawyers have argued the killing was politically motivated, with many key suspects linked to the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, suggesting the women were mere pawns.

Kim had criticized his family’s dynastic rule of North Korea, and his brother had issued orders for his execution, some South Korean officials have said.

Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on North Korea after formally determining that Pyongyang had used VX to assassinate Kim.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff)