Otto Warmbeir has been coma since March 2016, shortly after sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in North Korea.
A UN human rights investigator called North Korea on Friday to explain why an American student was in a coma when he was returned home after more than a year in detention there.
Otto Warmbier, 22, has a severe brain injury and is in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”, his Ohio doctors said on Thursday. His family said he had been in a coma since March 2016, shortly after he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in North Korea.
“While I welcome the news of Mr Warmbier’s release, I am very concerned about his condition, and the authorities have to provide a clear explanation about what made him slip into a coma,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), said in a statement issued in Geneva.
Ojea Quintana, speaking by telephone, later told Reuters: “There seems to be a disproportionate relation between the act or crime that Otto Warmbier is accused of and the penalty imposed on him from a human right points of view. There is a serious concern in this respect.”
Warmbier was arrested for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan, North Korean media reported. On Thursday, North Korea said that it had released him “on humanitarian grounds”.
The University of Virginia student’s father, Fred Warmbier, said his son had been “brutalised and terrorised” by the North Korean government. He said the family did not believe North Korea’s story that his son had fallen into a coma after contracting botulism and being given a sleeping pill.
Ojea Quintana called on North Korea to “clarify the causes and circumstances” of Otto Warmbier’s release.
“His ordeal could have been prevented had he not been denied basic entitlements when he was arrested, such as access to consular officers and representation by an independent legal counsel of his choosing,” added Ojea Quintana, a lawyer and veteran UN rights expert.