Otto Warmbier's Parents Sue North Korea Claiming He Was 'Brutally Tortured and Murdered'
"This lawsuit is another step in holding North Korea accountable for its barbaric treatment of Otto and our family," said Fred Warmbier in a statement to PEOPLE
The parents of Otto Warmbier — the 22-year-old University of Virginia student who died on June 19, 2017, after being released from North Korean captivity — sued the country on Thursday, claiming that they “brutally tortured and murdered” him, according to court documents provided to PEOPLE and made available online.
Otto — who was a native of the Cincinnati, Ohio, area — was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel room. He was in North Korea with a tour group and was arrested on Jan. 2, 2016, while trying to board a plane back to the United States.
In Cynthia and Fred Warmbier’s complaint, they claim that North Korea forced Otto to falsely “confess” to an act of subversion on behalf of the United States government and tortured him.
They add that North Korea “kept him in detention for a year and a half without allowing him to communicate with his family, and returned him to them in a non-responsive state and brain dead.”
As a result of their son’s “torture and death,” the Warmbiers “have each experienced the loss of their son’s society, companionship, comfort, advice and counsel and have suffered severe mental anguish, extreme emotional distress and solatium damages.”
Fred said in a statement provided to PEOPLE, “Otto was taken hostage, kept as a prisoner for political purposes, used as a pawn and singled out for exceptionally harsh and brutal treatment by Kim Jong Un. Kim and his regime have portrayed themselves as innocent, while they intentionally destroyed our son’s life. This lawsuit is another step in holding North Korea accountable for its barbaric treatment of Otto and our family.”
Otto was a junior in college when he went on a tour of North Korea through Young Pioneer Tours, a Chinese company which markets itself as providing “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
According to the complaint, the United States announced new sanctions on North Korea over its “weapons proliferation activities,” the same month Otto arrived. With his group at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport after the five-day tour, “Otto was suddenly and without explanation detained while going through security by North Korean officials, and was prevented from the leaving the country with the rest of the group.”
Three weeks later, on January 22, 2016, a North Korean media outlet published a story saying that Otto had been arrested for perpetrating a hostile act against the country.
The family’s complaint also addresses Otto’s condition upon his release to the U.S., with his parents claiming he returned home both “blind and deaf.” Otto’s parents claim “they also noticed that his once straight teeth were now misaligned and had been forced into abnormal positions, particularly in the front of his mouth.”
North Korea claimed that Otto contracted botulism and was given a sleeping pill to treat it, but according to the complaint “physicians conducted an electromyography test and found no evidence of botulism or the lasting nerve damage that would be expected had Otto contracted botulism in the past.”
“North Korea’s false explanations for Otto’s condition demonstrate that is it covering up its torture and mistreatment of Otto while he was in North Korean custody,” said the complaint.
The family is seeking punitive damages to be determined by the court.
According to The Washington Post, the complaint was filed just weeks before President Trump is set to meet with North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in late May or early June.