Jailed US student reaches home after being released from prison

American student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in North Korea for trying to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel. Warmbier has been in a coma since March 2016, according to his family.

Photo by: (AFP)
Photo by: (AFP)

The United States had accused the North of using Warmbier as a political pawn, condemning the sentence as far out of proportion to his alleged crime.

An American student who fell into a coma while imprisoned in a North Korean labour camp returned to the United States late Tuesday after Pyongyang allowed him to be flown home, US media reported.

A military airplane carrying Otto Warmbier landed in his hometown of Cincinnati shortly before 10:20pm (0220 GMT Wednesday), CBS News reported.

The release of Warmbier, 18 months into a 15-year sentence, came as US President Donald Trump invited South Korea's new leader Moon Jae-in to Washington for talks on the escalating standoff over the North's nuclear program.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier in the day that his agency had "secured" the 22-year-old's release in talks with North Korea and is pushing for three more Americans to be freed. It was not immediately clear if he had made any concessions.

The news surfaced after the flamboyant retired NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman – a former contestant on Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" reality show – flew to Pyongyang to resume his quixotic quest to broker detente between his US homeland and Kim Jong-un's authoritarian regime.

But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the visit "had nothing to do with the release."

Warmbier's parents Fred and Cindy announced his release in a statement to CNN on Tuesday.

"Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016," they said. "We learned of this only one week ago."

On arriving in Cincinnatti's Lunken Airport, Warmbier was transferred to a waiting ambulance that rushed him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for urgent treatment, Fox News reported.

Political pawn 

Warmbier's parents were told their son was given a sleeping pill soon after his trial in March last year and never woke.

"Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States," said Bill Richardson, who has previously served as a special envoy to North Korea and still works on prisoner issues.

"We received a call from Cindy and Fred Warmbier early today to update us on Otto's condition. In no uncertain terms, North Korea must explain the causes of his coma."

The United States had accused the North of using Warmbier as a political pawn, condemning the sentence as far out of proportion to his alleged crime.

The release came amid tension between Washington and Pyongyang following a series of missile tests by the North, focusing attention on an arms buildup that Pentagon chief Jim Mattis on Monday dubbed "a clear and present danger to all."

Worst mistake

Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested for removing a political banner from a wall at a North Korean hotel.

He was detained at the airport as he was leaving the country with a tour group in January 2016.

At a news conference before his trial, a sobbing Warmbier said he had made "the worst mistake of my life" and pleaded to be released.

Source: 
TRTWorld and agencies