North Korea sentenced two US journalists to 12 years imprisonment with hard labour on Monday. The Central Court in Pyongyang convicted Laura Ling and Euna Lee of an unspecified “grave crime” against the nation. There are no appeals in the North Korean judicial system.

“These two foreign journalists were subjected to the failures and shortcomings of the North Korean judicial system: no access to lawyers, no due process, no transparency,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director. “The North Korean judicial and penal systems are more instruments of suppression than of justice.”

Laura Ling and Euna Lee work for California-based Internet broadcaster Current TV in San Francisco. North Korean officials arrested them on 17 March near the Tumen River, which separates North Korea and China.

It is not yet clear whether the two women had crossed the border into North Korea or if they were in China when arrested. The two were investigating human rights abuses of North Korean women.

The journalists had been held separately and in solitary confinement in a “state guest house” near Pyongyang. They had limited consular support and very limited contact with their families after their arrest.

Amnesty International pointed out that prisoners in North Korea were forced to undertake physically demanding work which included farming and stone quarrying, often for 10 hours or more per day, with no rest days.

The organization said that guards beat prisoners suspected of lying, not working fast enough or for forgetting the rules and regulations of the prison. Forms of punishment included forced exercise, sitting without moving for prolonged periods of time and humiliating public criticism.

Prisoners fell ill or died in custody, due to the combination of forced hard labour, inadequate food, beatings, lack of medical care and unhygienic living conditions.

“The North Korean government seems to be using these two journalists as pawns in its dangerous game of escalating tensions with the international community,” said Roseann Rife. “This sentence was harsher than many observers expected, and completely out of line with any of the accusations that Pyongyang has levelled against them.”

(From: Amnesty International)