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Warmbiers win $500 million for son’s torture in North Korea

In this March 16, 2016 photo, American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Jon Chol Jin / Associated Press)
In this March 16, 2016 photo, American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Jon Chol Jin / Associated Press)
By Christian Berthelsen Bloomberg News

NEW YORK – A federal judge in Washington awarded $500 million in damages to the family of Otto Warmbier, an Ohio student who died after being detained in North Korea for more than 17 months.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in April against the North Korean government by Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, accusing it of torturing their son. North Korea didn’t contest the case. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell issued a default judgment Monday, but it’s likely North Korea will refuse to pay.

“We are thankful that the United States has a fair and open judicial system so that the world can see that the Kim regime is legally and morally responsible for Otto’s death,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement. “We promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him.”

Warmbier was a 21-year-old University of Virginia junior on a group tour when he was seized by North Korean authorities in January 2016 and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster featuring dictator Kim Jong Il. He was initially sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was returned to the U.S. in June 2017 in a comatose state – brain dead, blind and deaf. He died less than a week after arriving in the U.S.

U.S. authorities were told Warmbier had been in a coma for more than a year of his imprisonment, since April 2016 – two months after being forced to recite a videotaped confession in which he said he took the poster at the behest of the CIA and an Ohio church.

Doctors in the U.S. concluded his brain damage was the result of a loss of blood flow to his brain for as long as 20 minutes, but the precise cause remains unclear. When he was returned to the U.S., there was a large scar on his left foot, his teeth were misaligned, and he couldn’t breathe or eat without the assistance of a respirator or feeding tube. His family took him off life support after doctors concluded he was brain dead.

North Korea said at the time that Warmbier had suffered a case of botulism, which U.S. doctors found no evidence of.

“North Korea is liable for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier,” Howell, the chief judge of the Washington, D.C., federal courts, wrote in her ruling.

The judge awarded $450 million in punitive damages to Warmbier’s parents and his estate; the remainder of the judgment was for pain and suffering, economic losses and medical costs.

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