ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Islamic University in Gaza attacked

The Islamic University in Gaza, an independent Palestinian university established in 1978, has been bombed by Israeli warplanes. The attack took place on 28 December and while the scale of the damage is still not known, reports suggest that a science laboratory was targeted. Fortunately, the university was evacuated before the Israeli assault began and there were no casualties.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, virtually all commentators agree the university was attacked, in part, because it is a cultural symbol of Hamas. Israel has justified the attack by claiming the laboratory was being used as a rocket manufacturing facility and a centre for weapons research and development - a claim the university vehemently denies.

Little of the news coverage has emphasised the educational significance of the university which, in the opinion of many academics, far exceeds its cultural or political symbolism. The university was established by the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and has graduated many top Hamas officials.

Several Hamas leaders have also taught there as academics. The university has more than 20,000 students, is made up of 10 faculties and awards bachelors and masters degrees. It is a particularly important institution because Palestinian students from Gaza are unable, due to Israeli restrictions, to study in the West Bank or abroad.

SAUDI ARABIA: Saudi professor released after months in detention

Matruk al-Faleh, a professor of politics at King Saud University in Riyadh, has been released without charge after eight months in detention. The professor was taken from his office at the university last May.

His detention came two days after he publicly criticised conditions in a prison where two other Saudi human rights activists were imprisoned and it remains unclear why he was held for so long.

In 2005, Faleh was sentenced to seven years in jail, along with two others, for organising a petition calling for Saudi leaders to set a time frame for transforming the country's closed political system into a constitutional monarchy. King Abdullah pardoned them later that year. But a number of reform activists have been detained since then without charge.

IRAN: Prominent academics tried on illegitimate charges

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have urged academics and organisations around the world to take action on behalf of Dr Kamiar Alaei and Dr Arash Alaei, who have been detained in Iran and tried on illegitimate charges. Kamiar Alaei, a doctoral candidate at the SUNY Albany School of Public Health, and Arash Alaei, a former Director of the International Education and Research Cooperation of the Iranian National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, have been detained for more than six months.

Both academics were subjected to a superficial trial on 31 December and were found guilty of communicating with an enemy state. For more than 20 years, the Alaei brothers have been active in addressing problems relating to drug use, with a focus on the spread of HIV-AIDS. They have played a key role in putting these issues on the national health care agenda.

According to PHR, they have worked closely with government and religious leaders to ensure support for education campaigns on HIV transmission, including those targeting youth, and for HIV and harm reduction programmes in prisons.

THAILAND: Thai critic faces charges for insulting king

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, has been ordered to appear at a Bangkok police station to be charged for insulting the country's monarch, Asia Sentinel news said.

Ungpakorn has written a series of contentious articles commenting on a royalist and anti-democratic alliance made up of the 'fascist' People's Alliance for Democracy, the military, the police, the judiciary, most middle-class academics and especially Queen Sirikit. He accuses them of perpetrating a royalist coup that removed two democratically elected governments out of power.

Although 'Lese Majesté' laws in Thailand are designed to protect King Bhumibol Adulyadej, they are increasingly being used to go after government critics. Charges have been filed against several individuals, including the BBC correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head, for reporting on the political situation.

SINGAPORE: Academic freed from jail

John Tan, a lecturer in social psychology at Australia's James Cook University in Singapore, has been released from custody. He was charged for contempt of court for his actions during the defamation trial of Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) members and duly suspended from his university position on 21 October.

According to Channel News Asia in Singapore, Tan appeared outside the Supreme Court during the trial wearing a T-shirt bearing a picture of a kangaroo dressed in a judge's gown. The T-shirt referred to the Australian expression a kangaroo court or trial - a court characterised by irregular or sham proceedings. Tan spoke of poor living conditions inside the prison and the lack of respect for human rights in Singapore.

UK: Academic union abandons Israeli boycott

The UK's University and College Union has abandoned attempts to 'boycott' Israeli universities, according to opponents of the motion passed last May. Motion 25 endorsed a call to "consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues".

The Guardian reported that the leadership of the UCU quietly dropped plans to implement the motion after facing a substantial legal challenge. Union leaders responded by saying there was never a boycott motion passed at its congress and its position on Motion 25 had not changed.

The motion, passed in May by the union's congress, attempted to put pressure on Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. In response, a group of 12 members threatened to sue the union, arguing that it amounted to a boycott and that it stood in contradiction of union rules.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt insisted the motion had been misunderstood and was intended to provide solidarity with the Palestinians, not to boycott Israeli institutions. Israel's blockade of Gaza continues unabated leaving many students in Gaza trapped and unable to take up their granted places at universities abroad.

IRAN: American academic detained and interrogated

Grave concern has been raised over the detention and interrogation of prominent American academic Glenn Schweitzer. The incident led the National Academies of Science to suspend educational exchanges with Iranian institutions, Associated Press said.

Schweitzer, who has visited Iran frequently in the past without any problems and was in the country with a valid Iranian visa, was detained on 4 December in Tehran and questioned for three hours by men claiming to be Iranian security officials, the National Academies of Science said.

Two days later, Schweitzer was again detained and interrogated for six hours. He was later released without explanation and allowed to leave Iran. Exchanges have apparently been suspended between the academies and Iranian institutions until local authorities offer assurances of the safety of participants in such programmes.

* Jonathan Travis is programme officer for the Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR).