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24 April 2009
North Korea has announced that it will put two detained American journalists on trial. The two women were shooting video for a documentary at North Korea's border with China.
North Korea's official Central News Agency announced Friday Euna Lee and Laura Ling would face trial based on, in Pyongyang's words, "confirmed crimes committed by them."
The North Korean news release said a "competent organ" of the North's government had completed an investigation into the two women, who were taken into custody by the North Korean military last month.
The two were shooting footage about hardships faced by North Koreans who flee across the Chinese border. It remains unclear whether the women actually crossed into North Korean territory from China, or whether North Korean soldiers seized them on Chinese soil.
Pyongyang accuses them of "hostile acts" against the North Korean state. Estimates of a possible sentence range up to five or ten years in prison.
A South Korean government source familiar with the case says the announcement signifies the North has already completed a preliminary trial of the two women.
Patricia Goedde specializes in North Korean law at Sungkyungkwan University in Seoul. She says regardless of when a final trial is held - there is little suspense about the outcome.
"This is a formality," said Goedde. "Once you've already been indicted or been addressed with formal charges, then guilt has been presumed in this case."
Goedde says the fact the two accused journalists are Americans affords them legal privileges the North denies its own citizens.
"North Koreans, if charged with a hostile state act, would not be subject to a trial," she said. "In most cases the trial process would be skipped altogether."
Goedde says the trial is likely to resemble a military tribunal, involving military officers who also have high status within North Korea's main communist party. Goedde says the two women probably should not count on having a good lawyer by their side.
"You will not have legal counsel representing them," she said. "If you do, it might be a formality, but no one who would argue vigorously on their behalf."
Like a number of North Korea experts, Goedde says the only real factors likely to sway the outcome of the trial are political. They say Pyongyang is likely to use the two detainees for maximum diplomatic leverage - linking their fate to the degree of concessions Washington is willing to make.