NOT AS IT SEEMS: New claims about how Otto Warmbier died

 

MORE than two years after a terrified and remorseful Otto Warmbier apologised for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from a North Korean hotel, new theories about how the American student was left in such a bad state have emerged.

Otto died in June last year, six days after he was flown home from North Korea in an air ambulance with what doctors described as severe brain damage.

North Korea has always maintained the 22-year-old University of Virginia student suffered from botulism, an infection typically associated with food poisoning, and when doctors gave him a sleeping pill he never woke up.

But a medical examination completed by doctors in the United States after Otto was flown home, came to a definitive conclusion that botulism wasn't the cause of his brain damage.

Writer Doug Clark, who spent the past six months looking into the circumstances surrounding Otto's condition, has a different theory.

"The likelihood that his brain damage happened immediately after the sentencing, however, raises the possibility that he may have attempted suicide," Clark wrote for GQ.

Immediately after Otto's arrest, it's extremely likely the young student spent up to 15 hours a day in an interrogation room.

While his treatment would've been luxurious when compared to locals detained in North Korean prison camps, there's no doubt Otto would've suffered through severe mental torture.

As Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights for North Korea told GQ: "Otto's rights were violated on every level."

A North Korean woman, who had managed to make it to Seoul, described to Clark the conditions of a low-level camp she spent three years in for attempting to flee to South Korea.

"North Korean prisons are actually hell. We had less rights than a dog. They often beat us, and we were so hungry we would catch mice in our cells to eat," she said.

By February 29, 2016, as Otto sobbed over his handwritten confession in front of North Korean journalists, he had spent at least two months being reminded every day that "the American government couldn't help him".

Bae Ling, another American who spent time as a North Korean prisoner, said they were repeatedly told they'd been "forgotten".

And for Otto, a 22-year-old facing 15 years hard labour in the communist country, Clark speculates that might've been too much to handle.

At the end of September, three months after Otto's parents Fred and Cindy Warmbier decided to remove their son's feeding tube and let him die, a coroner who had examined him, called a press conference.

American doctor Dr Lakshmi Kode Sammarco, who examined Otto, called the press conference a day after the distraught couple had sat down with Fox and Friends and called North Korea "terrorists" and said their son was "systematically tortured".

"They kidnapped Otto, they tortured him, they intentionally injured him. They are not victims they're terrorists," Mr Warmbier said.

The family said that when they rushed on to the air ambulance in June last year, they heard a "howling involuntary, inhuman sound".

"We weren't really certain what it was. We climbed to the top of the steps, we looked in and Otto was on the stretcher across the plane and he was jerking violently making these inhuman sounds," Mr Warmbier said.

He said his son's arms and legs were "totally deformed" and seeing their son like that was too much for his wife and Otto's younger sister, Greta.

"Cindy and Greta ran off the plane. Austin (Otto's youngster brother) and I walked over to Otto," Mr Warmbier said. He had a shaved head, he had a feeding tube coming out of his nose. He was staring blankly into space, jerking violently.

"He was blind, he was deaf. As we looked at him and tired to comfort him. It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and tried to rearrange his bottom teeth.

"Within two days of Otto being home, his fever spiked to 104 degrees. He had a large scar on his right foot. North Korea is not a victim … they purposefully and intentionally injured Otto."

But Dr Sammarco contradicted the family's allegations.

Telling reporters she hadn't counteracted claims Otto was physically tortured out of respect for his family, Dr Sammarco spoke about the discrepancies.

"I felt very comfortable that there wasn't any evidence of trauma" to the teeth or jawbone, Dr Sammarco said. "We were surprised at (the parents') statement."

She said Otto's "teeth (were) natural and in good repair" and apart from the scar on his foot, found no other significant cuts.

Scans found Otto had suffered no fractures or prior trauma, while both sides of his brain had been simultaneously starved of oxygen.

According to medical professionals, universal oxygen starvation is generally associated with strangulation, suffocation or a suicide attempt.

Dr Sammarco even went as far to say Otto's body was "in excellent condition".

"I'm sure he had to have around-the-clock care to be able to maintain the skin in the condition it was in," she said.

The Warmbier family has always maintained Otto was brutally beaten and physically tortured during the year-and-a-half he spent in North Korea.

In a tweet after the Warmbiers' interview with Fox and Friends, US President Donald Trump tweeted the 22-year-old had been "tortured beyond belief".

North Korea however, has always maintained the Trump administration used Otto's death to escalate tensions between the two countries.

A DPRK foreign ministry official denied that Otto was abused while in custody, condemning "groundless public opinion now circulating in the US that he died of torture and beating during his reform through labour".

In September, Otto's family refused a full internal examination which means the truth about the student's death will likely never be known.

Dr Sammarco said it was impossible to determine what happened to Otto's brain that caused the injury that led to his death.

"They're grieving parents. I can't really make comments on their perceptions," she said. "But we, here in this office, we depend on science for our conclusions. If we don't have the science, we don't conjecture," she said.

"The family is looking for answers that at this point, we're never going to know."



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