A U.N. human rights investigator called on 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 labor 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 U.N. 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, from a Cincinnati suburb, 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 “brutalized and terrorized” by the North Korean government.
Fred Warmbier 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 U.N. rights expert.
Two other U.S. nationals, both university professors in Pyongyang, were arrested this year for allegedly plotting anti-state acts and remain in custody, he said.
“It is most important that wherever they are being held someone can meet them other than seeing them at a public trial. This is something I have been trying to do for foreign national prisoners,” he told Reuters, urging they be granted access to consular officials. “This is where the problem lies.”
Veteran former U.S. politician and diplomat Bill Richardson also offered on Friday to visit North Korea to try to secure their release.
A 2014 landmark report by a U.N. investigators cataloged massive human rights violations in North Korea which they said could amount to crimes against humanity.
Tens of thousands of people are detained across the isolated country in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture and forced labor, it said.
North Korea has “categorically and totally” rejected the U.N. report.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Roche and Alison Williams)