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American Otto Warmbier Has Been Released From A North Korean Prison

American student Otto Warmbier, seen here arriving for his trial in Pyongyang last March, has been freed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
American student Otto Warmbier, seen here arriving for his trial in Pyongyang last March, has been freed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says.

Updated at 1 p.m. ET

North Korea has released American college student Otto Warmbier, who is on his way back to the U.S. and won't be forced to serve a 15-year prison term, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Warmbier is in a coma, his father tells NPR.

News of the University of Virginia student's medical condition came on the heels of his release. Fred Warmbier tells NPR's Emily Kopp that he's been told his son has been in a coma since sometime after his sentencing in March of 2016.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier tell the AP that Otto Warmbier is now on a medevac flight.

"We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime" in North Korea, the Warmbiers said in a statement quoted by the AP.

Earlier Tuesday, Tillerson had provided only few details about Warmbier or the circumstances around his release.

"At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea," Tillerson said in a statement. "Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family."

Later, Tillerson said at the start of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "We have no comment on Mr. Warmbier's condition, out of respect to him and the family."

Warmbier, 22, was freed more than a year after a North Korean court sentenced him to 15 years in prison and hard labor. Warmbier initially was detained in January 2016, accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner at his Pyongyang hotel.

Tillerson added that discussions are still ongoing with North Korea "regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained."

The secretary said that out of "respect for the privacy of Mr. Warmbier and his family, we have no further comment on Mr. Warmbier."

Warmbier was freed on the same day former NBA star Dennis Rodman landed in North Korea to visit its leader, Kim Jong Un. Rodman has said he practices "basketball diplomacy"; it is not clear whether he spoke on Warmbier's behalf.

If Warmbier had been able to return to the U.S., he would have graduated from college in May. Today, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan released a statement saying that while the school's "community is relieved to learn of Otto's release from North Korea, we are deeply concerned and saddened to learn from his family that he is in a coma."

Sullivan said, "The UVA family will continue to keep the Warmbiers in our thoughts and prayers as Otto returns to the United States and his home where he will receive the care and support of those who love him."

During a tearful court appearance in February 2016, Warmbier apologized for his actions in North Korea. One month later, he was sentenced to prison. Warmbier has said he arrived in the country on Dec. 29, 2015, and was arrested Jan. 2, 2016, as he prepared to fly out of Pyongyang's international airport.

North Korean officials had accused Warmbier of subversion.

As we reported, Warmbier was " paraded in front of cameras and diplomats in Pyongyang, where he read a confession and public apology."

"On camera, Warmbier said he stole the propaganda poster on behalf of a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, who wanted it 'as a trophy.' In exchange, he would receive a used car worth $10,000."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.