Monday 16 September 2019

North Korea ordered to pay $500m to US family

Injuries: Otto Warmbier was left blind, dumb and brain-dead. Photo: REUTERS
Injuries: Otto Warmbier was left blind, dumb and brain-dead. Photo: REUTERS

Eric Tucker in Washington

A federal judge ordered North Korea to pay more than $500m (€438m) in a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died shortly after being released from that country.

US District Judge Beryl Howell harshly condemned North Korea for "barbaric mistreatment" of Mr Warmbier as she agreed with his family that the isolated nation should be held liable for his death last year.

She awarded punitive damages and payments covering medical expenses, economic loss and pain and suffering to Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who alleged their son had been held hostage and tortured.

Mr Warmbier was a University of Virginia student who was visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in March 2016 on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster. He died in June 2017, shortly after he returned to the US in a coma and showing apparent signs of torture while in custody.

In holding North Korean responsible, Judge Howell said the government had seized Mr Warmbier for "use as a pawn in that totalitarian state's global shenanigans and face-off with the United States".

"Before Otto travelled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with 'big dreams' and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king," the judge wrote. "He was blind, deaf, and brain-dead when North Korea turned him over to US government officials for his final trip home."

The arrest and death of Mr Warmbier came during a time of heightened tension between the US and North Korea over the country's nuclear weapons programme.

US President Donald Trump held a first-of-its-kind summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last June.

The judgment may be mostly a symbolic victory since North Korea has yet to respond to any of the allegations in court and there's no practical mechanism to force it do so.

But the family may be able to recoup damages through a US Justice Department-administered fund for victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism, and may try to seize other assets held by the country outside of North Korea.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who are from a suburb of Cincinnati, said they were thankful the court found the government of Kim Jong-un "legally and morally" responsible for their son's death.

"We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him," they said.

Irish Independent

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