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US student freed by North Korea in a coma dies at 22

FILE - In this Feb. 29, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea. More than 15 months after he gave a staged confession in North Korea, he is with his Ohio family again. But whether he is even aware of that is uncertain. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)

CINCINNATI (AP) — Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was released by North Korea in a coma last week after more than a year in captivity, died Monday, his family said.

The 22-year-old “has completed his journey home,” the family said in a statement.

“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,” his parents said.

Doctors had described his condition as a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and said he suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause.

His father, Fred Warmbier, said last week that he believed Otto had been fighting for months to stay alive to return to his family. Their statement Monday said he had looked uncomfortable and anguished after returning June 13, but his countenance later changed.

“He was peace. He was home, and we believe he could sense that,” they said.

Warmbier was convicted of subversion after he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group from China. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor in North Korea.

The University of Virginia student was held for more than 17 months. His family said last week they were told he had been a coma since soon after his March 2016 sentencing.

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

North Korea said he went into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. Doctors in Cincinnati said they found no active sign of botulism nor evidence of beatings.

His parents told The Associated Press in a statement the day of his release that they wanted “the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime ” and expressed relief he had been returned to “finally be with people who love him.”

Fred Warmbier praised his son’s “performance” and President Donald Trump’s administration. He was critical of former President Barack Obama’s approach to his son’s situation.

The younger Warmbier grew up in the northern Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming. He was salutatorian of his 2013 class at the highly rated high school, and was on the soccer team, among other activities.

Ohio’s U.S. senators sharply criticized North Korea last week.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman said North Korea should be “universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior.” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said the country’s “despicable actions … must be condemned.”

The Warmbiers have “had to endure more than any family should have to bear,” Portman added.

Three Americans remain held in North Korea. The U.S. 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.

At the time of Warmbier’s release, a White House official said Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy on North Korea, had met with North Korean foreign ministry representatives in Norway the previous month. Such direct consultations between the two governments are rare because they don’t have formal diplomatic relations.

At the meeting, North Korea agreed that Swedish diplomats could visit all four American detainees. Yun learned about Warmbier’s condition in a meeting a week before the release from the North Korean ambassador at the U.N. in New York. Yun then was dispatched to North Korea and visited Warmbier June 12 with two doctors and demanded his release on humanitarian grounds.

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Follow Dan Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell .

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