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Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January 2016, bows during a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo on Feb. 29, 2016. Warmbier was detained for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda banner from his Pyongyang hotel and has confessed to "severe crimes" against the state, the North's official media said on Monday. Photo by Kyodo via Reuters

North Korea sentences American student to 15 years of hard labor

An American student was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for committing crimes against the state, the country’s Supreme Court found.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate from Ohio, was convicted of subversion and sentenced in a trial lasting one hour.

Warmbier was detained in January after he reportedly tried to steal a political banner from a hotel in Pyongyang. At a press conference on Feb. 28, Warmbier tearfully confessed to the act. He stated that he was put up to the task by an acquaintance from a church back home in Ohio in exchange for a used car. He also said that a secret organization at the University of Virginia, the “Z Society,” had also encouraged him.

On Tuesday, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met with North Korean diplomats at the United Nations to discuss the release of Warmbier, the New York Times reported. Richardson has travelled to North Korea several times in the past on diplomatic missions to secure the release of American prisoners. Richardson was requested to become involved in Warmbier’s case by Ohio Gov. and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich.

Kasich’s office released a statement on Wednesday calling for Warmbier’s release: “North Korea should immediately release Otto Warmbier and let him return to his family here in Ohio. His detention was completely unjustified and the sentence North Korea imposed on him is an affront to concepts of justice.”

With tensions rising between the United States and North Korea over the Asian country’s nuclear weapons and missile activities, Richardson said this will not strengthen prospects of obtaining Warmbier’s release. “My concern now is that the U.S.-North Korean relationship is in very low, negative ebb, and I hope that does not affect a humanitarian negotiation for the release of Otto,” Richardson told The Associated Press.

The United States and North Korea do not have official diplomatic relations; the case is being handled by the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which handles consular affairs for Americans. On March 3, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the detained student received a visit from a Swedish official the previous day and that the United States is working closely with the Swedes.

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