(New York) - The North Korean government's announcement on the sentencing of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a US citizen, raises serious concerns about whether his trial was fair, especially given the lack of transparency and extremely harsh punishment for a vaguely worded charge, Human Rights Watch said today.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang reported on April 7, 2010, that a North Korean court had convicted Gomes, a 30-year-old American from Boston, of illegal entry and "hostile acts" against North Korea. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined the equivalent of US$700,000.
"Trials in North Korea are notoriously unfair, and Gomes' appears to have been no different," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This whole episode looks like another North Korean charade, with a vague criminal charge and a lack of due process leading to a long prison sentence."
KCNA announced that Gomes admitted guilt on all charges, but did not provide any additional details to explain the "hostile acts" charge.
Previous trials of foreigners in North Korea have raised serious concerns about due process and guarantees of a fair trial. The North Korean authorities did not indicate whether Gomes had legal counsel of his choice and was given an opportunity to mount a legal defense, whether the court proceedings were translated for him, or whether he will be able to appeal the ruling.
Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang were able to observe the trial. The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and has depended on Sweden for access to Gomes; Sweden last had consular access to Gomes on March 17, and has not publicly spoken about the case.
North Korea's judiciary is neither transparent nor independent. All judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and people's jury members are appointed by the ruling Korea Workers' Party. Some North Korean refugees have told Human Rights Watch that even when defense lawyers are allowed, their role is perfunctory at best.
"Eight years of hard labor in North Korean prison is an extremely harsh punishment," Robertson said. "North Korean prisons are notorious for torture, forced labor, chronically insufficient food, and a lack of medical treatment."
North Korean citizens suffer even worse treatment under the country's criminal justice system. Many North Korean refugees have told Human Rights Watch that they have witnessed unfair public trials and executions of North Koreans accused of committing theft of state property and other "anti-socialist" crimes.
Last year, North Korea sentenced two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry into the country. They were released five months later, when former US President Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. In early February, Robert Park, a Korean-American missionary, was released from North Korea. Park had illegally entered North Korea on December 25 to appeal to Kim to end human rights violations.
South Korean media reported that Gomes, a former English teacher in South Korea, had attended rallies in South Korea calling for Park's release. Friends of Gomes in South Korea told the media that he was a devout Christian and had probably entered North Korea in January in support of Park.