North Korea's highest court Monday sentenced two U.S. journalists detained in March near the border with China to 12 years in labor camp for an unspecified "grave crime" and illegal entry, Yonhap News Agency reported Monday, quoting Pyongyang's news agency.
The sentence for Chinese-American Laura Ling and Korean-American Euna Lee appears to be harsher than expected, with their charges believed to carry a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison under North Korean criminal law, according to officials and watchers.
The Central Court, North Korea's top court in Pyongyang, "staged a trial of American journalists Laura Ling and Seung-eun Lee from June 4 to 8," the Korean Central News Agency said, referring to Lee by her Korean name.
"The trial confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing," it said, "and sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labor."
The report did not specify what the grave crime was. The North previously accused them of illegally entering the country and engaging in "hostile" acts.
The verdict would be final, as the North's top court does not allow appeals, the Seoul officials say.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has lately toughened her call on North Korea to free the two women, saying the charges against them are baseless.
Washington believes that "the charges against these young women are absolutely without merit or foundation," Clinton said in an interview with ABC television over the weekend. Clinton admitted to sending a letter asking for their release and said she has received "responses."
The journalists from Current TV, a San Francisco-based Internet outlet co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, were detained on March 17 while working on a story about North Korean defectors.
Washington did not rule out the possibility of Gore flying to North Korea to negotiate their release.