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North Korea releases jailed American student in a comatose state

(Reuters/Bryan Woolston)Local residents hold signs of support to welcome home Otto Warmbier at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, US, June 13, 2017.

A 22-year-old American student who was serving a 15-year-prison sentence for stealing a propaganda banner in North Korea has been released after being in a coma for over a year.

Otto Warmbier, who had served 18 months of his 15-year sentence, arrived in his hometown of Ohio on Wednesday and was immediately taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

The 22-year-old student was arrested in 2016 after he removed a banner of the nation's late dictator Kim Jong Il from a North Korean hotel while he was in the country with a tour group.

During a press conference prior to his trial, Warmbier pleaded to be released, saying he made "the worst mistake of my life."

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that his agency had "secured" the student's release during discussions with North Korea.

"Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family. The Department of State continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained," Tillerson said at the time.

According to The Telegraph, Warmbier's parents were told that he fell into a coma after he was given a sleeping pill following his trial in March last year.

"Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago," the parents said.

"We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalised and terrorised by the pariah regime in North Korea. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him," they added.

Tillerson did not offer any comment on Warmbier's health condition, but the family said that the student was medically evacuated from North Korea because he was in a coma that is believed to be associated with botulism.

The U.S. has criticized North Korea for Warmbier's harsh sentence and has accused the Communist regime of using the student as a political pawn.

North Korea has been known for occasionally jailing U.S. citizens and releasing them only after visits by high-profile political figures such as former President Bill Clinton. Three other American citizens are still believed to be detained in North Korea.

Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, who both worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, were detained in early May for unspecified hostile acts. In April 2016, South Korean-born U.S. citizen Kim Dong Chul was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor.

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