Last April I wrote about the cases of two reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, charged with trespassing in North Korea. They were arrested on March 17 near the North Korean border where they were reportedly covering the story of the trafficking of women. (Interesting that North Korea would not want such a story covered.) North Korean officials said on March 31 that the reporters would be indicted on charges of “illegal entry” and perpetrating “hostile acts” against the Communist state.

On June 8 Ling and Lee were convicted by the nation’s top Central Court of an undefined “grave crime” against the hard-line regime. In a terse statement, the state-run Korean Central News Agency did not say where the women are to serve the time. And because the reporters were tried by the nation’s highest court, there can be no appeal.

The legal process surrounding the sentencing was a flagrant violation of due process, Amnesty International has said. “No access to lawyers, no due process, no transparency: the North Korean judicial and penal systems are more instruments of suppression than of justice,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director.

Watch the AP report.

North Koreans who receive similar sentences of “reform through labor” often face starvation and torture in a penal system many consider among the world’s most repressive, David Hawk, author of The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps, told the Chicago Tribune.

“These places have very high rates of deaths in detention,” Hawk said. “The casualties from forced labor and inadequate food supplies are very high.” Many of the camps, he said, are affiliated with mines or textile factories where long work shifts are often followed by self-criticism sessions and forced memorization of North Korean communist policy doctrine.

Hawk, however, like many experts, believes the pair will likely escape the worst of fates because of the glare of the international spotlight on North Korea. We can only hope.

After the verdict, US officials reissued their call for North Korea to release the pair while the families of Lee and Ling appealed to the government in Pyongyang for leniency saying they are “shocked and devastated” by the sentence.

In a joint statement issued this morning, the families of the two women said that “the three months they have already spent under arrest with little communication with their families is long enough. We ask the government of North Korea to show compassion and grant Laura and Euna clemency and allow them to return home to their families,” they said.

The statement expressed concern about the women’s health, noting that Ling, 32, has a serious medical condition and that Lee’s 4-year-old daughter is showing “signs of anguish over the absence of her mother.”

The White House says that it is using “all possible channels” to secure the release of the two US journalists. Greatly complicating matters however is the dismal state of US-North Korean relations. North Korea is in the midst of a succession in political leadership, always a touchy time, and in May, North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb to world outrage.

Consequently, Ling and Lee have become prize chips in what New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has previously negotiated the release of Americans in North Korea, calls a “high-stakes poker game” between the United States and North Korea.

The key to securing their release seems to rest in de-linking the humanitarian issue of their detention with the broader questions raised by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and regional aggression. This won’t be easy but there are a few things that any concerned citizen can do to help.

Sign the petition calling for their immediate release. Get breaking news and action alerts at the LiberateLaura Twitter feed and the Ling/Lee Facebook page, and implore your elected reps to make every effort to ensure the journalists’ safe return.

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