(Photo: AP Images / Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service)
Former President Jimmy Carter has helped free a U.S. Christian who was detained for the past seven months in North Korea.
The two are expected to return to Boston, Mass., Friday afternoon.
According to The Carter Center, Aijalon Mahli Gomes was granted amnesty by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il after having been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for entering the reclusive country illegally.
Gomes' family expressed relief.
"They really are thrilled and very grateful to President Carter," Thaleia Schlesinger, spokeswoman for the family, told The Boston Globe.
The U.S. Department of State, which failed earlier this month to free Gomes, also welcomed news of his release.
"We appreciate former President Carter’s humanitarian effort and welcome North Korea’s decision to grant Mr. Gomes special amnesty and allow him to return to the United States," department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Thursday.
Carter arrived in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on Wednesday with a delegation from The Carter Center. The trip was a private, humanitarian mission of The Carter Center – which is committed to advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary human suffering – solely for the purpose of bringing Gomes home. Carter traveled at the invitation of North Korea. The U.S. government did not propose or arrange the trip, Crowley said.
"Based on our assessment that Mr. Gomes' health was at serious risk if he did not receive immediate care in the United States, the U.S. Government concurred with former President Carter's decision to accept the North Korean proposal," Crowley noted.
During the visit, Carter had "an open-hearted discussion" with the North Korea's foreign minister and vice foreign minister for U.S. affairs on the North Korea-U.S. relations, according to the country's Korean Central News Agency. They also discussed the resumption of six-party talks, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and other issues of mutual concern.
Gomes has been described as a devout Christian. He was reportedly in South Korea teaching English at an elementary school in a city near the North Korean border. The 31-year-old attended rallies in Seoul in January calling for the release of Robert Park, an American who crossed into North Korea from China and was later released. Gomes was arrested two weeks later and convicted of illegally entering North Korea and “hostile acts” against the country. His motivations for entering the communist country are unclear.
Last year, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang at the invitation of North Korea and secured the release of two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling of Current TV, who were sentenced to prison after illegally entering the country.