When Huong Nguyen approached Kaylee Dolen after an Amnesty International call-out meeting and told her story, Dolen said she wanted to drop everything else they were working on and help.
Nguyen’s fiancée, Nguyen Tien Trung, was arrested in July 2009 and given a seven-year prison sentence for spreading pro-democratic sentiment. Nguyen, a graduate student in the Maurer School of Law, has become an advocate for spreading awareness about the repression of free speech in Vietnam and is working to secure Trung’s release.
“I always say it’ll be the happiest day of my life when those two finally get to get married,” said Dolen. “All will be right with the world when that happens.”
As vice president of the Bloomington chapter of Amnesty International, Dolen has worked on several initiatives that were assigned to the chapter, such as garnering support for the Violence Against Women Act. However, the group is also given the freedom to choose its own projects. Nguyen and Dolen worked together to raise awareness of the oppression of political dissidents, setting up tables and posters around campus to attract people’s attention and asking people to sign petitions.
“I find that most people really do care about this stuff, but don’t know that it’s going on or don’t know the extent to which it’s going on,” said Dolen.
They have expanded their efforts beyond IU’s campus with The 88 Project, an advocacy group that seeks to support peaceful political dissidence and freedom of expression in Vietnam.
The name “The 88 Project” refers to article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” It states that citizens may be sentenced to three to 12 years of imprisonment for speaking out against the government or spreading anti-government sentiment.
“Basically, if you are seen in public inciting what they think is subversion against the state, they feel like it gives them grounds to do whatever they need to do to eradicate that subversion,” said Dolen.
Nguyen and Dolen are regular contributors to The 88 Project’s website, sharing news articles and writing blog posts about human rights activism. These range from stories about prisoners of conscience, such as the story of three bloggers who went on trial for spreading anti-government sentiment, to personal calls to action asking readers to stand up for freedom of expression.
“If everyone who has freedom and who is enjoying decent lives chooses to close their eyes before injustice, those who suffer will be forgotten,” said Nguyen in a post on The 88 Project’s website.
Ela Gancarz, founder of the production company DELIGHT film, is another key contributor. She produced a short film, released on YouTube last week, to raise awareness of the project. The film, titled “The Repression of Cyber Dissidents,” is a compilation of interviews with activists and people who have been affected by this issue.
“My desire is that the film will create a little bit of political awareness amongst people who live in free countries,” Gancarz said in a post on The 88 Project’s website.
Dolen said that she, Nguyen and Gancarz keep in touch through email and Skype to brainstorm ideas and share news. They are spearheading a letter campaign to members of Congress, pressuring them to have a hearing on the situation in Vietnam, and are in the process of creating other short films on campus to garner local support.
“I think when we hear stories of others overcoming obstacles, it simply inspires us,” said Gancarz. “During hard times, we really need to be motivated and have hope, but the world will change only if we find courage to stand up and speak up.”