07:23, June 23 385 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-23 07:23:03
North Korea denies US claims that Otto Warmbier was tortured

North Korea has accused the US of conducting a smear campaign against the regime over Otto Warmbier, the American student who was sent home in a coma after 17 months in prison.

The 22-year-old, who died on Monday just over a week after being flown home to Ohio, had spent a year suffering from a severe brain injury that North Korean doctors claimed had been caused by a heart attack and taking a pill for botulism.

In North Korea’s first public comment on Warmbier’s death, a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry said claims that Warmbier was beaten and tortured in captivity were “groundless”.

“The fact that Warmbier died suddenly in less than a week just after his return to the US in his normal state of health … is a mystery to us as well,” the ministry spokesman said, according to the official KCNA news agency.

Warmbier was arrested in January last year and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a staff-only area of his hotel in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

He was released earlier this month in what North Korea described as a “humanitarian gesture”.

The spokesman, who was not named, said that US doctors who travelled to North Korea to carry out Warmbier’s medical evacuation had recognised that he had been given medical treatment and, despite his serious medical condition, had been sent back to the US alive.

He added: “Although we had no reason at all to show mercy to such a criminal of the enemy state, we provided him with medical treatment and care with all sincerity on a humanitarian basis until his return to the US, considering that his health got worse.”

He claimed that Warmbier had been the victim of Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” towards the regime, since he had never requested the student’s release during his presidency.

Earlier this week, Donald Trump said Warmbier’s death was a “total disgrace”, adding that if he had brought home sooner “the result would have been a lot different”.

The US secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, said Washington’s patience with Pyongyang was running out. “To see a young man go over there healthy and, [after] a minor act of mischief, come home dead basically … this goes beyond any kind of understanding of law and order, of humanity, of responsibility toward any human being,” he said.

In response, North Korea accused Washington of conducting a smear campaign that “compels us to make firm determination that humanitarianism and benevolence for the enemy are a taboo and we should further sharpen the blade of law”.

KCNA quoted an unnamed spokesman for the country’s National Reconciliation Council as saying: “Our relevant agencies treat all criminals ... thoroughly in accordance with domestic laws and international standards and Warmbier was not an exception.

“Those who have absolutely no idea about how well we treated Warmbier under humanitarian conditions dare to utter ‘mistreatment’ and ‘torture’.”

The cause of Warmbier’s death remains a mystery. Doctors who treated him at the University of Cincinnati medical centre said he was badly brain damaged when he arrived from North Korea in what they termed a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”.

They carried out an external examination but his parents asked local coroners not to conduct an autopsy. They blamed their son’s death on the “the awful torturous mistreatment” he received in North Korea.

On Thursday, thousands of mourners turned out for Warmbier’s funeral in Cincinnati, where the streets were adorned with blue and white ribbons in a show of support.