Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student from Cincinnati, was just released from North Korea after being detained and imprisoned there for 18 months. His plane arrived in Cincinnati last night.
Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, say their son is in a coma — and has been in this condition for over a year without their knowledge.
While visiting North Korea with a tour group, Warmbier was arrested in January 2016 for participating in alleged anti-state activity by trying to steal a propaganda banner. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. (North Korea does not have free speech rights.)
Warmbier’s detainment meant that he was absent from a highly anticipated event: the day that would have been his college graduation.
Many UVA students wore #FreeOtto stickers on graduation day to show that they hadn’t forgotten about their classmate and friend.
“I think this is what Otto would want — for us to enjoy the day, and think about him too,” UVA graduate Sanjana Sekhar said on commencement day, according to the Washington Post.
Many took to Twitter using the same hashtag to celebrate Warmbier’s return home.
The university made sure to incorporate Warmbier during Sunday’s Final Exercises, the ceremony where he would’ve received his degree from the McIntire School of Commerce.
“The #FreeOtto stickers were distributed to students as they assembled to walk down the University’s Lawn; I would estimate that more students donned the stickers than did not,” UVA graduate and class of 2017 president Patrick Rice told USA TODAY College. “Though the mood remained celebratory, this visual reminder hit home the fact that one of our classmates had been robbed of his education, family and liberty.”
Rice had known Warmbier through mutual friends and had last spoken to him in November of 2015, he says. He was shaken when he heard of Warmbier’s detainment last year.
“My thoughts at the news of his detainment were the same as most people — shock and anger. I don’t think anyone would have expected for a fellow student to get caught in the crosshairs of an ongoing international conflict,” Rice says. “For many of us, it painfully illustrated the reality of foreign threats to the United States, something we may not have thought about often before.”
UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan addressed his absence in a message of support at the commencement ceremony and released this statement today about his return:
“While the entire University of Virginia community is relieved to learn of Otto’s release from North Korea, we are deeply concerned and saddened to learn from his family that he is in a coma. The last 17 months have been an extremely difficult and emotionally trying time for the Warmbier family. The UVA family will continue to keep the Warmbiers in our thoughts and prayers as Otto returns to the United States and his home where he will receive the care and support of those who love him.”
Rice says if could give Warmbier a message, it would be one of hope.
“I would say simply that there are many, many people who have actively kept him in their thoughts over the past year and a half,” he says. “and will continue to do so as he receives proper medical attention.”