After nearly two years, Tohnain Emmanuel Njong (pictured), a Cameroonian who was reportedly imprisoned in China for a crime he did not commit, was interviewed about a plea he wrote while imprisoned, according to DNAinfo.
Njong reportedly lived in Qingdao, Shangdong Province, as an English teacher, but one day in May 2011, he was allegedly arrested and charged with fraud.
Even though Njong maintained that he did not commit the crime, he was swiftly incarcerated, working about 16 hours a day, starting at 6 a.m. for the next three years.
With a daily quota over his head, Njong was reportedly forced to make shopping bags, assemble electronics, and sew garments. And to keep track of his production levels, he was issued a pen and paper.
Njong used this pen and paper to write five letters — with some of them being written in French — in the hopes that someone would hear the following plea:
“We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory,” continued the letter, which was tucked into the bottom of the bag. Thanks and sorry to bother you.
Njong put a passport-sized photo of himself with the letter and included his e-mail address.
One of his letters ended up at a Saks Fifth Avenue store in New York, and the woman who would discover it was 28-year-old Australian West Harlem resident Stephanie Wilson., who coincidentally works for the nonprofit Social Accountability International.
Wilson immediately contacted the Washington, D.C.-based Laogai Research Foundation, which focuses its human rights work on Chinese prisons, but once the foundation realized that the e-mail didn’t work, they had a dead end.
Determined not to give up, the Foundation’s founder, Harry Wu, forwarded the letter to the Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, Wu has intimate knowledge of Chinese prisons, because he, himself, was a prisoner in China for 19 years.
Wu explained the risk Njong took in writing the letter and possibly getting caught, “There would be solitary confinement until you confess and maybe later they increase your sentence — or even death.”
But Homeland Security would also fail to locate Njong.
In the United States, it is illegal for products that were made by slaves, convicts, or indentured labor to be imported in to the country.
Two U.S. laws make it illegal for products made using slave, convict or indentured labor to be imported into the United States, according to Kennedy. However investigations are difficult with DHS required to prove how much a company knew about its own supply chain.
After several failed attempts to locate Njong, he was finally located through social media.
Njong, who was finally released from prison in December 2013, explained his experience behind bars:
“We were being monitored all the time,” Njong said. “I got under my bed cover and I wrote it so nobody could see that I was writing anything. Maybe this bag could go somewhere and they find this letter and they can let my family know or anybody [know] that I am in prison.”
Once he was released, Chinese authorities put him back on a plane to Cameroon. According to Njong, his family and friends assumed he was dead since they had no contact with him.
Now, Njong is gainfully employed in Dubai, since he could not find work in his homeland.
And even though his message didn’t facilitate his release, he is still grateful that his writing wasn’t in vain, “It was the biggest surprise of my life,” said Njong. “I am just happy that someone heard my cry.”