Amid graduation celebrations at the University of Virginia, students remembered the absence of their fellow Cavalier, Otto Warmbier #FreeOtto

On Saturday, May 20, University of Virginia students walked across stage and celebrated the achievement of their degrees. Despite the celebratory spirit, students solemnly acknowledged the absence of their fellow Cavalier, Otto Warmbier. Students donned stickers and used the hashtag #FreeOtto to return attention to the troubling case of the imprisoned classmate. Slated to graduate in 2017, Ohio native Otto Warmbier's life took an unexpected turn in January of 2016. Warmbier, 21 years old and in his junior year at the University of Virginia, booked a trip to North Korea through Young Pioneer Tours, a Xi'an, China-based tourism company. The company advertises their business as "budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”

Otto Warmbier never boarded the return flight to China.

After the highly-supervised five-day tour through Pyongyang, the group of about 20 tourists headed to the airport for the return flight to China. The trip to the airport on the government-sponsored bus was uneventful; travelers' passports (which they had surrendered upon arrival) were returned to them. However, at the immigration line in the airport, things did not go according to plan for Warmbier. The media officer for Young Pioneer Tours, a young British woman named Charlotte Guttridge, was the only non-Korean individual to witness what unfolded.
Officers rushed Guttridge through immigration, while Warmbier remained at the passport control desk. From the other side of the checkpoint, Guttridge saw Warmbrier escorted into a room adjacent to the immigration desks. Guttridge boarded the plane where other tourists discussed how he had been drinking heavily the night before. They suspected he drank too much and became too sick to board. Before the plane departed, an officer approached Guttridge and told her Warmbier was "very sick" and being transported to a hospital. The officer said that Warmbier would be released the next day or the next week.

Detained for "perpetrating a hostile act against the DPRK"

Three weeks after the tour group left Pyongyang, the Korean Central News Agency reported they arrested Warmbier for “perpetrating a hostile act against the DPRK.” Nine weeks after his tour group left Pyongyang, Otto Warmbier appeared before KCNA cameras to confess his crime and to give a tearful apology. His crime? Attempting to steal a political propaganda poster from his hotel in Pyongyang. [caption id="attachment_1640" align="alignnone" width="1024"]#FreeOtto Otto Warmbier at the February 29, 2016 news conference[/caption] In a bizarre justification, CNN reported that the government believes a member of Warmbier's church, Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, promised to buy him a used car worth $10,000 in exchange for political propaganda from North Korea. The KCNA reported that a secret society at UVA called Z Society also encouraged Warmbier to commit the crime. Warmbier said the U.S. government also manipulated him into the act: “I was used by the United States administration like many before.” His sentence? 15 years hard labor.

Over a year later, his absence is strongly felt at UVA; the call to #FreeOtto rings out across the campus.

With no word from the U.S. State Department or North Korean government, Warmbier's family lies in wait. His peers at UVA made a conscious effort to remember him over graduation weekend -- the same weekend during which he had intended to graduate. Warmbier's fellow Cavaliers distributed over 1,000 #FreeOtto stickers. Warmbier’s parents organized the #FreeOtto sticker campaign, and they gave them to his friends to distribute among the graduating students this weekend. Warmbier’s parents did not attend the commencement ceremonies. “It felt to us like a wake,” Fred Warmbier said. What is your response to Otto Warmbier's imprisonment? Did the #FreeOtto stickers help, or is more action required? Let us know in the comments!

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