U.N. rights expert urges release of 6 South Koreans held in North

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations human rights investigator on North Korea called on Thursday for six South Korean nationals in custody there to be freed, voicing concern over conditions of their detention.

Special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana issued a statement hours after three U.S. prisoners released by Pyongyang arrived back home.

He hoped that “important decision” would lead to Pyongyang addressing wider concerns over human rights and the humanitarian situation.

Ojea Quintana urged North Korea to release the six South Korean prisoners, who include three pastors.

“I remain concerned by reports that the foreign detainees have not received due legal process and may be held in inhumane conditions without consular access,” he said.

“Moreover, as peace talks progress, a comprehensive assessment of the overall penitentiary system in North Korea will become unavoidable.”

As international relations with isolated North Korea have thawed, Ojea Quintana has called for negotiations on its nuclear program to be accompanied by talks to address alleged torture and political prisoner camps.

North Korea, which does not recognize his mandate from the U.N. Human Rights Council, denies accusations of widespread rights abuses against its people.

A 2014 report by a U.N. commission of inquiry cataloged massive violations including large prison camps, starvation and executions.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet