N. Korea releases American student Otto Warmbier sentenced to 15yrs, now in coma
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
Warmbier is due to arrive home in Cincinnati on Tuesday evening, after being evacuated through a US military base in Sapporo, Japan, according to The Washington Post.
The deputy assistant secretary of state, Joseph Yun, traveled to Pyongyang with doctors on a military medical plane last Thursday. They landed in Sapporo with Warmbier on Tuesday night local time, before continuing on to Cincinnati, the newspaper reported.
Warmbier's parents have confirmed to AP that their son is in a coma.
"We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime" in North Korea, Fred and Cindy Warmbier told the news agency.
They said they are grateful he "will finally be with people who love him."
The Washington Post reported that he has been in a coma for more than a year, since shortly after his last public appearance at his trial in March 2016.
His parents were told that he contracted botulism, a form of food poisoning, soon after his trial. He then reportedly took a sleeping pill and never woke up, according to the Post.
Warmbier's parents said they only learned their son was in a coma one week ago.
The college student's arrest was announced by North Korea in late January 2016, after he reportedly tried to steal a propaganda banner as a souvenir for a friend who wanted to hang it in her church.
Speaking before his one-hour trial, a tearful Warmbier told reporters he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could successfully steal the propaganda banner. He was also told that if he was detained and didn’t return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation.
The college student said he accepted the offer because his family was “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
Pyongyang accused him of committing an anti-state crime with “the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation.” The American student was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
The Tuesday announcement came as former NBA player Dennis Rodman was in Pyongyang for a visit. Rodman, who has long been slammed for his unlikely friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, said he believed US President Donald Trump would be “happy” with the fact he was "just trying to open a door."
Tillerson’s statement failed to mention Rodman’s visit, with the secretary of state saying no further comments would be made out of respect for Warmbier’s privacy.
Pyongyang had gone quiet about Warmbier since his sentencing in March 2016, until earlier this month, when North Korean representatives reportedly contacted the US, saying he was in a coma.
President Trump was immediately informed and ordered the 22-year-old’s medical evacuation, sources with knowledge of the situation told the Post.
“This is a Trump-led effort,” one said.
Tillerson said during the Tuesday statement that the State Department is continuing to “have discussions” with North Korea about the release of other three American citizens who are jailed there.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has praised the release of Warmbier, while describing North Korea as a “human rights black hole.”
“While everyone welcomes Otto Warmbier's long overdue release from North Korea, no one should forget that he should have never been imprisoned in the first place,” HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement. “It's clear that Pyongyang has committed a grave injustice against Otto and his family, and the news that he may be returning with a serious medical problem raises concerns about what happened to him in North Korean custody.”
HRW urged Pyongyang to release the “other three American citizens being held in custody,” and end its alleged “rights abusing practice of seizing foreign nationals for political purposes.”