Why freed US man is in coma, UN envoy urges N Korea to explain

GENEVA/OHIO: A United Nations human rights investigator called on North Korea on Friday to explain why an American student was in a coma when he was returned home this week 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 labour 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 UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), said in a statement issued in Geneva.
Warmbier, from a Cincinatti 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 “brutalised and terrorised” 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 case serves as a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate medical treatment for prisoners in the DPRK,” he said.
“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 UN rights expert.
Meanwhile, doctors said Warmbier has a severe brain injury and is in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”.
Warmbier, who arrived in the United States on Tuesday, is stable but “shows no sign of understanding language, responding to verbal commands or awareness of his surrounding,” said Dr Daniel Kanter, Medical Director of the neuroscience intensive care unit at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
“He has not spoken,” Kanter said at a news conference. “He has not engaged in any purposeful movements or behaviours.” He said Warmbier was breathing on his own.
Doctors said on Thursday that there was no sign of botulism in Otto Warmbier’s system.
Kanter said that Warmbier had suffered “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain,” but he declined to discuss Warmbier’s prognosis at the request of his family.
While doctors are uncertain as to what exactly caused the condition, cardiac arrest that stops the flow of blood to the brain is generally seen as resulting in the death of brain tissue.
Cardiac arrest in young, healthy people is rare and generally caused by either intoxication or traumatic injury, Dr Jordan Bonomo, a specialist in neurosurgery and neurocritical care at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, said at the news conference.
Although doctors had no information about the type of medical treatment Warmbier received while in North Korea, they did receive MRI images from North Korea dated April 2016, Kanter said. Based on those images, doctors estimate the brain injury likely occurred in the preceding weeks, he said.
Doctors said there was no evidence that Warmbier suffered any broken bones.
On Thursday, the State Department said that its special envoy on North Korea, Joseph Yun, who negotiated Warmbier’s release during a visit to the country this week, had also met with three other US citizens being held in North Korea.
Fred Warmbier said he was stunned when told of his son’s condition one week ago.
“I don’t know what being in shock is, but I’m pretty sure I was,” he said.
“There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top-notch medical care for so long.”
He said his wife, Cindy, had not left their son’s side since his return to the United States and that he had spoken with US President Donald Trump on Wednesday night.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on Thursday, “We’re glad he’s home.” He said officials would not comment on Warmbier’s health or how he came to be in his current condition. Tillerson said on Wednesday that US officials were considering some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea.
US lawmakers introduced a bill last month that would ban US citizens from traveling to North Korea as tourists and require them to obtain special permission for other types of visits, following the detention of at least 17 Americans there in the past decade.
In Wyoming, a northern Cincinnati suburb of about 8,000 people, Warmbier’s return to the United States was marked by blue and white ribbons, representing the colours of the local high school, tied around trees and telephone polls. — Reuters