N. Korea sentences US student to 15 years of hard labor

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U.S. Student Sentenced to 15 Years Hard Labor in North Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) -- North Korea's supreme court sentenced American student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested while visiting the country, to 15 years of hard labor on Wednesday for crimes against the state.

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Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student, was detained in January for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel in Pyongyang, North Korean media said previously.

"The accused confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government's hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist," the state-controlled KCNA news agency reported, using the acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Human Rights Watch condemned the sentence handed down to the student from Wyoming, Ohio. Japan's Kyodo news agency published a picture of Warmbier being led from the courtroom by two uniformed guards, with his head bowed, but visibly distressed.

See photos of the American student:

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Otto Warmbier, North Korea sentences US student to 15 years of hard labor
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N. Korea sentences US student to 15 years of hard labor
American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. North Korea's highest court sentenced Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student, from Wyoming, Ohio, to 15 years in prison with hard labor on Wednesday for subversion. He allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda banner from a restricted area of his hotel at the request of an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
FILE - In this Feb. 29, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's highest court on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, sentenced Warmbier, who allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda banner from a restricted area of his hotel, to 15 years of hard labor in prison. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)
American student Otto Warmbier, right, bows as Warmbier is presented to the reporters on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea announced late last month that it had arrested the 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
American student Otto Warmbier holds onto handwritten notes as Warmbier is presented to the reporters Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea announced late last month that it had arrested the 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
American student Otto Warmbier, center, arrives at the People's Cultural House, as Warmbier is presented to reporters Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea announced late last month that it had arrested the 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. North Korea's highest court sentenced Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student, from Wyoming, Ohio, to 15 years in prison with hard labor on Wednesday for subversion. He allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda banner from a restricted area of his hotel at the request of an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
American student Otto Warmbier is escorted at the Supreme Court Wednesday, March 16, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's highest court sentenced Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student, from Wyoming, Ohio, to 15 years in prison with hard labor on Wednesday for subversion. He allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda banner from a restricted area of his hotel at the request of an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
Exterior of the of the Warmbier family home photographed Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Wyoming, Ohio. North Korea on Friday announced the arrest of Otto Warmbier, a university student from Ohio, for what it called a "hostile act" orchestrated by the American government to undermine the authoritarian nation. (AP Photo/Gary Landers) (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
Small American flags have been placed in the trees in front of the Warmbier family home, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Wyoming, Ohio. North Korea on Friday announced the arrest of Otto Warmbier, a university student from Ohio, for what it called a "hostile act" orchestrated by the American government to undermine the authoritarian nation. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
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"North Korea's sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking, and should not be permitted to stand," Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division, said in an emailed statement.

Warmbier's defense attorney said the gravity of his crime was such that he would not be able to pay even with his death but proposed to the court a sentence that is reduced from the prosecution's request of a life sentence, KCNA said.

Last month, Warmbier told a media conference in Pyongyang that his crime was "very severe and pre-planned."

He was at the end of a five-day New Year's group tour of North Korea when he was delayed at airport immigration before being taken away by officials, according to the tour operator that had arranged the trip.

Warmbier's sentencing comes as North Korea is increasingly isolated, with the U.N. Security Council imposing tough new resolutions earlier this month following the North's January nuclear test and last month's long-range rocket launch.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week said the North would soon test a nuclear warhead and ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, in what would be a direct violation of U.N. resolutions backed by its chief ally, China.

North Korea has a long history of detaining foreigners and has used jailed Americans in the past to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

North Korea is also holding a Korean-Canadian Christian pastor it sentenced to hard labor for life in December for subversion. The North is also holding a Korean American and three South Korean nationals.

It has previously handed down lengthy sentences to foreigners before freeing them.

In 2014, North Korea released three detained Americans.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who had previously traveled to North Korea, met the North's ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday to press for the release of Warmbier, the New York Times reported.

"I urged the humanitarian release of Otto, and they agreed to convey our request," Richardson was quoted as saying.

While most tourists to North Korea are from China, roughly 6,000 Westerners visit annually, though the United States and Canada advise against it. Most visitors are curious about life in the reclusive state and ignore critics who say their dollars prop up a repressive regime.

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