Democracy is a fascinating abstraction for some but a given in a society that has preached the glories of a government for the people, by the people since its inception.
For Nguyen, it’s a rallying cry. She has spent three of those years at Maurer School of Law fighting — both on her own and alongside Amnesty International Association at IU — to free her fiancé Nguyen Tien Trung from prison.
On July 7, 2009, Trung was arrested from his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for “propaganda against the socialist state and plotting to overthrow the people’s government,” Nguyen said.
“In a one party state, anyone asking for a multi-party system and free election is treated as a criminal, subject to criminal law and tried by the courts run by the party in power,” she wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
For the third time, Trung celebrated his birthday in prison Sept. 16. He is to serve seven years in prison, Nguyen said. Five others were arrested with him on the same charges.
Nguyen and Trung met in 2002 in Rennes, France. She was an undergraduate law student, and he was studying computer science.
They began dating in 2004 and got engaged in January 2007.
The democratic movement in Vietnam was a mutual interest of theirs. While still a master’s student in France, Trung founded Viet Youth for Democracy and joined the Democratic Party of Vietnam.
Above all, he wrote. Trung ran a blog until 2008.
“He spent lots of time writing what he thought about the political situation,” she said. “He started to organize, and that may have made the government worry.”
These discussions never called for radical revolution, Nguyen said. The couple and their close friends merely asked for basic rights of the citizens. A democratic constitution, elections, private press and free expression were among their demands.
In 2007, Trung returned to Vietnam.
“He could have stayed in France and had a good life there,” Nguyen said. “But this is something he felt very strongly about.”
In 2008, the Vietnamese government started to act.
Once Vietnamese citizens reach the age of 25, they cannot be drafted to the military, Nguyen said. Almost 25, working full-time and studying for a second master’s degree, Trung was drafted anyway. He was in the military for 16 months, from March 2008 to July 2009.
“We always see that as another kind of jail,” Nguyen said.
She had returned to Vietnam in 2008 and was able to visit him twice while he was in the military. In 2009, they moved him and she could no longer see him.
Nguyen and their circle of friends and family discovered he was no simple soldier. He was essentially a political prisoner before ever being officially arrested for his political views, Nguyen said.
In June 2009, the Vietnamese government began to arrest the couple’s friends, fellow supporters of democracy. Trung told Nguyen to leave as soon as possible.
Two weeks after she left, he was expelled from military service. The next day, he was arrested.
“I’m glad I listened to him,” she said with a small smile.
Nguyen spent three years fighting on her own, writing letters to the U.S., Canadian and Vietnamese governments as well as nongovernmental organizations, motioning for the freedom of Trung and other political prisoners.
She tries to write him, too, but they never get through the censorship system, she said.
In spring 2012, Nguyen discovered Amnesty International at IU, a human rights organization that promotes activism on campus, president Sarah Jones said.
“We never come in knowing what we are going to do,” said Laura Strawmyer, a sophomore member of Amnesty International. “But then Huong came up to our former president with packets of info about people imprisoned in Vietnam in order to get people to hear her story.”
As soon as they heard the story about her fiancé, they picked up the campaign.
“We want to see her get married,” Strawmyer said. “She came to the U.S. to get a law degree and promote change. That’s hard enough without your fiancé living in prison.”
Amnesty International, like Nguyen’s earlier efforts, focuses on letter-writing campaigns in order to pressure governments into action, said Jones. They’ve sent letters to embassies and political leaders in both countries, senior member Marie Parent said, in addition to initiating petitions and information tables.
Social media plays an important role not only in the release of Trung and fellow “prisoners of conscience”, Nguyen said, but in its existence as a medium of expression for the Vietnamese people that the government has a hard time controlling.
Constant reminders to the government that people are watching are of upmost
importance to people like Trung, sophomore member Kaylee Dolen said, and social media is one way to do that.
“It’s a very isolated prison, very strict with visits and communication from family and lawyers,” Dolen said. “They want to make people disappear.”
Progress is sometimes slow and usually difficult, Nguyen said, even on the U.S. side.
“Sometimes it is hard to know. They say they are paying attention to the case,” Nguyen said. “But a petition is one way for U.S. people to say ‘We want you to pay attention to the situation, we are concerned with human rights, and we want you to pay attention to this.’”
Nguyen has a petition online with more than 4,000 signatures.
“Sometimes people say ‘It’s not the right moment,’ but I think that we need people to start to talk about democracy,” Nguyen said. “It’s not just a matter of ideology. There are people who suffer in this corrupted system, and that is something that really motivates people like him.”
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