US student case is reminder of prison conditions in North Korea – UN rights expert

GENEVA (16 June 2017) – A United Nations Special Rapporteur has called for respect for the human rights of detainees in North Korea, after the release of US student Otto Warmbier earlier this week.

Mr. Warmbier was arrested last year during a trip to Pyongyang and given a 15-year prison term for allegedly planning hostile acts against the state. He is believed to have been in a coma since March 2016, reportedly after being given a sleeping pill by prison officials.

“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,” said the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Tomás Ojea Quintana.

“His case serves as a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate medical treatment for prisoners in the DPRK,” he stressed.

Information on prisons is scarce in North Korea. In 2014 a United Nations commission of inquiry found that thousands of people were routinely detained in facilities across the country, held in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture and forced labour.

The country is also thought to operate up to five political prison camps for the most serious crimes. Foreign nationals have also been detained on political grounds, including two US university professors in Pyongyang who were arrested this year for allegedly plotting anti-state acts.

Mr. Ojea Quintana stressed that the authorities had failed to protect Mr. Warmbier from the start.

“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,” the Special Rapporteur said.

The expert noted the DPRK has signed up to five human rights treaties and the 1963 Vienna convention on consular relations that guarantee these basic rights.

It is not clear how Mr. Warmbier’s release has been secured, although his rapidly declining health may have been an incentive for North Korea to discharge him. “The onus is on the DPRK government to clarify the causes and circumstances of the release”, Mr Ojea Quintana insisted.

“I call on the DPRK authorities to protect all prisoners, be they North Korean or foreigners. Release on humanitarian grounds should always be considered when the person’s health deteriorates to the point of putting their lives in danger, regardless of their crime,” he concluded.