US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday that North Korea had released Otto Warmbier, an American serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts, as reports emerged that the 22-year-old has been in a coma for as long as a year.
Tillerson said that Warmbier was on his way back to the US to be reunited with his family. He said in a statement that the state department secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of Donald Trump, adding that the department was continuing to discuss three other detained Americans with North Korea.
Tillerson did not address Warmbier’s medical condition, but the Washington Post reported that Warmbier was currently in a coma and had been for upwards of a year. Warmbier’s family told the Post that, according to North Korean officials, the 22-year-old contracted a case of botulism shortly after his trial and was given a sleeping pill from which he never woke up.
Warmbier’s parents said they only learned of their son’s condition last week when the return was negotiated.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told the Post on Tuesday morning after Otto Warmbier was evacuated. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
In a statement to media Fred and his wife Cindy added, “We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North [Korea]. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”
Warmbier is being medically evacuated through the US military base in Sapporo, Japan.
Warmbier is a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati. He was sentenced in March 2016 after a televised tearful public confession to trying to steal a propaganda banner.