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Otto Warmbier's Parents Sue North Korea, Alleging Torture Of Their Son

The parents of an American college student who died after more than a year in North Korean custody have sued North Korea, accusing the regime of torture and mistreatment.

Otto Warmbier was returned to the U.S. last June in a coma. He died soon afterward. A coroner concluded that his death was "due to an unknown insult more than a year prior to death."

North Korea has denied torturing Warmbier, whom they accused of trying to steal a poster and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Pyongyang says the student's coma was caused by botulism.

Cynthia and Fred Warmbier, his parents, say that's a lie.

In the lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., they say North Korea "brutally tortured and murdered" their 22-year-old son.

The Cincinnati couple accuses the regime of hostage-taking, torture, extrajudicial killing, wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery.

"North Korea's conduct was willful, outrageous, extreme and dangerous to human life, and violates applicable criminal law and all international standards of civilized human conduct and common decency," the lawsuit states.

The Warmbiers are asking for punitive damages.

The lawsuit comes just weeks before President Trump is due to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, an extraordinary and unprecedented meeting. And it was filed just days after the administration announced that Mike Pompeo — then CIA director, now secretary of state — met with North Korea earlier this month.

In general, countries are immune from lawsuits in other countries. "We prefer that disputes between sovereigns really be resolved at the diplomatic stage, as opposed to the private civil litigation stage," law professor Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas explained to NPR in 2016. And then there's the question of reciprocity, he said: "Otherwise you'd have a race to the bottom where countries would hail each other into each other's courts."

But there are exceptions — including, in the U.S., an exception for countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism. That's what allowed Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian to sue Iran for torture in 2016.

And Trump returned North Korea to that list in November, making the Warmbiers' lawsuit possible.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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