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Otto Warmbier Dies Days After Release From North Korea

He was forced into a televised 'confession'.

20/06/2017 10:25 BST | Updated 20/06/2017 11:59 BST

An American college student has died just days after being released from North Korea in a coma.

Otto Warmbier admitted attempting to steal a propaganda banner and was convicted of subversion after visiting the communist country in March 2016.  

What happened to Otto Warmbier? 

The 22-year-old was put before North Korean officials and journalists for a televised “confession” in which he exclaimed: “I have made the worst mistake of my life!” as he begged to be reunited with his family.

Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Otto Warmbier (centre) died on Monday. He is pictured here in 2016 arriving at a court for his trial in Pyongyang

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labour but fell into a coma soon after his sentencing.

Upon his release last week, doctors described his condition as a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and said he had suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause.

Doctors said he suffered extensive loss of brain tissue and “profound weakness and contraction” of his muscles, arms and legs. His eyes opened and blinked but without any sign that he understood verbal commands or his surroundings.

Bill Pugliano via Getty Images
Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto, holds a press conference wearing the jacket his son wore when he delivered a forced confession on live TV 

Unresponsive wakefulness is a new medical term for persistent vegetative state. Patients in this condition who have survived a coma can open their eyes, but they do not respond to commands. People can live in a state of unresponsive wakefulness for many years with the chances of recovery depending on the extent of the brain injury.

North Korea also sent MRI images of Warmbier’s brain, dated April 2016. The photos indicated his injury likely occurred before the scans were taken ― meaning he had been suffering since the beginning of his imprisonment.

North Korea said Warmbier went into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. Doctors in Cincinnati said they found no active sign of botulism or evidence of beatings. NBC News reports that medics found signs his brain damage may have been caused by a long period of oxygen deprivation - the kind caused when something stops someone’s heart. 

Following his death on Monday, Warmbier’s family said: “Unfortunately, the awful, torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”

In a White House statement, President Donald Trump said, “A lot of bad things happened, but at least we got him home to be with his parents.” He called North Korea a “brutal regime.”

Warmbier had planned to study in China in his third year of college and heard about Chinese travel companies offering trips to North Korea. He was leaving North Korea on 2 January, 2016, when he was detained at the airport.

Botulism is a rare but life-threatening condition caused by toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

These toxins attack the nervous system (nerves, brain and spinal cord) and cause paralysis (muscle weakness).

Most people will make a full recovery with treatment, but the paralysis can spread to the muscles that control breathing if it’s not treated quickly. It is fatal in around 5-10% of cases.

The US Department of State warns against travel to North Korea. While nearly all Americans who have been there have left without incident, visitors can be seized and face lengthy incarceration for what might seem like minor infractions.

Jeffrey Fowle, also from Ohio, was detained in 2014 when he intentionally left a Bible in a nightclub. Fowle was freed after six months. He said he was kept isolated most of the time but not physically abused. He and others freed from North Korea have said they were coached and coerced into giving confessions.

Three Americans remain held in North Korea. The US government accuses North Korea of using such detainees as political pawns. North Korea accuses Washington and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.