UPDATE @ 8:15 p.m. (June 14): The parents of Otto Warmbier continue to express concern about their son and the coma he is in -- a condition they knew nothing about.
UPDATE @ 10:20 p.m. (June 13): A small jet carrying Otto Warmbier has landed at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati. A medical unit is there to ferry him to University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Otto Warmbier, a Cincinnati-area man who was held captive in North Korea for more than a year, was released Tuesday.
His family says that he was in a coma and had been “brutalized” by the reclusive regime.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime” Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier told The Associated Press.
Warmbier has been in a coma for “over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care,” said Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, who has been in touch with the Warmbier family and has served periodically as a negotiator with the North Korean government.
The New York Times reports that a senior U.S. official said it was only in recent weeks that the “United States obtained intelligence reports indicating that Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody.”
Warmbrier, 23, is from Wyoming in Hamilton County. According to The New York Times, people close to the negotiations said he was flown to Japan and then Alaska, before arriving at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati. Warmbrier will then be taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.”
The statement said the department would have no further comment on Warmbier, citing privacy concerns.
In March 2016, North Korea’s highest court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years in prison with hard labor for subversion as he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.
Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court.
The U.S. government condemned the sentence and accused North Korea of using such American detainees as political pawns.
Ohio lawmakers react
The State Department alerted Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, of Warmbier’s release. In a statement, Portman said Warmbier’s detainment and sentence “was unnecessary and appalling and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior.”
“Otto should have been released from the start,” he said. “For North Korea to imprison Otto with no notification or consular access for more than a year is the utmost example of its complete failure to recognize fundamental human rights and dignity.”
He called for the release of three other Americans being held in North Korea.
Brown, meanwhile, said his first priority “will be continuing to support Otto, his parents and family, whose strength and love of family inspire me every time I speak with them.”
“North Korea’s despicable actions in detaining and holding Otto were unacceptable and must be condemned,” he said.
The court held that Warmbier had committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”
North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the U.S.-backed South Korean government to take control of the Korean Peninsula.
Incident was over a banner
Before his trial, Warmbier, a 2013 graduate of Wyoming High School, had said he tried to steal a propaganda banner as a trophy for an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church. That would be grounds in North Korea for a subversion charge. He identified the church as Friendship United Methodist Church. Meshach Kanyion, pastor of the church in Wyoming, declined to comment Wednesday.
North Korea announced Warmbier’s arrest in late January 2016, saying he committed an anti-state crime with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.” Warmbier had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.
In a tearful statement made before his trial, Warmbier told a gathering of reporters in Pyongyang he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could get a propaganda banner and 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.
Warmbier said he accepted the offer because his family was “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
Warmbier also said he had been encouraged by the university’s “Z Society,” which he said he was trying to join. The magazine of the university’s alumni association describes the Z Society as a “semi-secret ring society” founded in 1892 that conducts philanthropy, puts on honorary dinners and grants academic awards.
Incident hits close to home
The news of Warmbier’s return to Ohio is hitting close to home for one Moraine man who was detained in North Korea for months.
“It was like walking on a cloud,” said Moraine resident Jeff Fowle of the day he returned home after being held in North Korea back in 2014.
News Center 7’s Sean Cudahy spoke to Fowle Tuesday to get his reaction of the release of Warmbier.
Fowle said he has some idea of what Warmbier’s family is going through.
Fowle was detained in North Korea for six months after leaving a Bible in a club, which is considered a crime.
“I was very happy to be home with my family, walking on the tarmac there at Wright-Patt … it was a very good reunion,” Fowle said. “It’s increasingly problematic for the detainees and prisoners over there, as the situation’s gone from bad to worse.”
The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report.
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