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GLOBAL: Academic freedom reports worldwide

In Syria, a nuclear physicist who was shot in the head has become the latest victim of a series of murders targeting scientists in the city of Homs. Iranian Omid Kokabee, the Texas University doctoral student detained in Tehran's Evin prison on espionage charges, went on trial last week. And in China, the authorities have cancelled the classes of a prominent Uyghur professor at the Beijing Minorities University, and 20 Uyghur professors have been dismissed from a teaching college in the northwestern region of Xianjiang for failing to be fluent in Mandarin.

SYRIA: Nuclear scientist killed in Homs

Ous Abdel Karim Khalil, a nuclear physics professor based in Homs in Syria, has been killed outside his home. His death is the latest in a series of murders targeting scientists in the city, the BBC reported on 28 September.

The academic was shot in the head outside his house in the city of Homs, which has become a central point of the regime's repression.

The government news agency, Sana, declared the death of the nuclear scientist to be linked to a terrorist group, while another report asserted that he was killed in a revenge attack.

But activists blame the regime for his death and accuse President Bashar al-Assad's government of trying to spread chaos and fear among the population in an attempt to quash protests.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in the UK, the government aims to "provoke confessional discord" in Homs by killing scientists.

The announcement of the scientist's death coincided with reports of fighting between security forces loyal to the regime and deserters in the strategic city of Rastan, north of Homs.

His death also occurred during a tense political period as the international community, led by the UK, France, Germany and Portugal, has demanded sanctions against the Syrian government while the repression continues.

According to the United Nations, more than 2,700 people have been killed across Syria since the protests began six months ago.

IRAN: Texas University student's trial rescheduled

The trial of Omid Kokabee, a doctoral student at the University of Texas who has been detained since February in Iran, began on 4 October. He denied allegations of having relations with a hostile country and receiving illegitimate funds, reported The Statesman. If convicted, Kokabee (29) could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Science reported on 22 September that Kokabee was arrested on his way back to the United States after visiting his family in Iran during the Christmas break, and is being held in Evin prison in Tehran on charges of espionage. He was previously told his trial would start on 16 July, but officials cancelled it at the last minute with no explanation.

The student has been accused of working with the CIA and disclosing Iranian scientific information outside the country. He was held in solitary confinement for 36 days.

Kokabee has received high levels of support from his colleagues, professors and the scientific community, who all argue that the accusations are nonsense. Recently, a number of scientific groups signed open letters to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, calling for clemency for Kokabee.

But despite the public and media attention around Kokabee's case, the Iranian authorities have not released him.

Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at City University of New York and a member of the international Committee of Concerned Scientists, fears the new trial date means the authorities are better prepared to handle the case.

Other Iranian students in the United States are also following the case closely. Many of them are concerned about going back to Iran to visit their families for fear of being arrested.

CHINA: Uyghur academic's course cancelled

Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur professor at the Beijing Minorities University, has had his classes cancelled by the university authorities, Radio Free Asia reported on 21 September.

Tohti, an outspoken Uyghur economist, teaches immigration, discrimination and development in the northwestern region of Xianjiang.

His module titled "Research into the sustainability of population, resources and environment in Xinjiang" was cancelled on 15 September, a week after he gave his first class, and students wishing to enrol were informed of the cancellation.

According to the university, the decision is justified by a rule stating that any class with fewer than 25 students will be cancelled, and Tohti's course enrolled 21 students.

Tohti claimed that the university had planned this from the outset by preventing students from enrolling in his class. He added that, despite the low number of officially enrolled students, at least 40 students showed up for his lecture and were surprised to learn about the cancellation.

He also said he saw on the university website's system used for enrolments, that 59 students had signed up for his class in mid-August but that the report was later deleted.

Tohti, whose lectures highlight economic and religious discrimination against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, is under close police surveillance since last year's ethnic riots in the region, which is inhabited by many Muslim Uyghurs. Chinese authorities blame the Uyghur minority for a series of deadly attacks in the region in recent years.

Tohti's Uyghur Online website has been closed down repeatedly since 2009 and recently his email account was hacked. He has also been interrogated several times by state security police and is currently prevented from travelling abroad. And he reported that a plainclothes policeman warned him during a lecture last year that he was "talking too much".

He said he is not planning to appeal or challenge the university decision, arguing that "complaining won't make any difference".

CHINA: Dismissed Uyghur professors refuse deal

Twenty Uyghur professors dismissed from a teaching college in Xinjiang in northwestern China, for failing to be fluent in Mandarin, have refused new positions, Radio Free Asia reported on 27 September.

The professors, who were employed in the Xinjiang capital of Uruqmi, were offered new positions in school security in exchange for their silence. But they turned down the offer, arguing that they were overqualified.

The academics are determined to publicise their case and fight for the abandonment of the region's bilingual education policy.

Until recently, classes in Xinjiang schools were taught in Uyghur, the region's official language. But after the implementation of new policy, Mandarin is now favoured in schools.

According to the professors, Uyghur students are penalised by the bilingual policy because they spend more time trying to learn Mandarin and understand the questions than learning the content.

Others complain that the policy is not really about bilingual education, as many schools do not offer Uyghur education at all.

A female Uyghur lecturer at Xinjiang University said, anonymously, that despite being fluent in Mandarin she continues teaching in Uyghur because it is a way of preserving their culture. She feels the government is forcing people to speak Mandarin, and she called on fellow Uyghur academics and students to stand up against the policy and keep using their language.

The bilingual policy was also contested in the Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, where demonstrations were organised to protest against the imposed use of Mandarin in classrooms.

* Noemi Bouet is a programme officer at the Network for Education and Academic Rights, NEAR, a non-profit organisation that facilitates the rapid global transfer of accurate information in response to breaches of academic freedom and human rights in education.
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