INDIA: University book ban sparks free speech fears

Writers, filmmakers and social commentators have expressed fear for freedom of speech after the withdrawal of an award-winning book from a university syllabus following pressure from hard-line Hindu activists, AFP reported on 20 October.

Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey was taken off Mumbai University's undergraduate arts degree course by the vice-chancellor after complaints and protests from the student wing of Shiv Sena, a far-right political party.

Protests included copies of the novel being burned by members of the party's youth wing, lead by Aditya Thackeray, grandson of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray.

Shiv Sena pushes a regionalist, often anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan agenda and often backs up threats with violence, targeting allegedly 'unpatriotic' and allegedly defamatory comments and behaviour.

Mistry denounced their threats and intimidation and accused the university and its vice-chancellor of bowing to political pressure and institutionalising self-censorship.

Bloggers and those involved in the arts scene in Mumbai voiced their concerns about a growing "fascist ethos".

In an article by The Times of India on 22 October, it was reported that faculty members were pressurised by senior administrative officials to publicly state their support for the decision to pull the book from the syllabus.

Malaysia: Government pressured to drop ban on student politics

Malaysia's ruling party faced an appeal at its annual congress on 14 October to allow students to take part in politics, and reverse a recent cabinet decision maintaining the ban, AFP reported on 20 October.

The 1971 law barring Malaysian students from involvement in political parties and trade unions has been criticised as a violation of human rights and freedom of expression.

Khairy Jamaluddin, leader of the United Malays National Organisation's youth wing and son-in-law of former premier Abdullah Ahmed Badawi, argued for the amendment of legislation allowing university students to be actively involved in politics.

He went on to cite research that demonstrates that 75% of young voters plan to vote in the next national polls in 2011. With 62% not aligned to a party, he warned UMNO that they may face strong opposition in the election.

He also criticised other UMNO policies, including affirmative action for Muslim Malays, launched in 1969 following national race riots.

Malay entrepreneurs have benefitted greatly from the policy, which includes specially allocated government projects and discounts on property. Allegedly resented by Malaysia's minority Chinese and Indian citizens, Khairy argued that the programme had failed and must be replaced.

Iran: Jailed scholar denies charges in court

Jailed Iranian religious scholar Ahmed Ghabel appeared in court on 20 October where he denied charges of acting against national security, reported Radio Free Europe on 21 October.

Ghabel, a religious scholar and student of the late senior dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri, was first arrested in December 2009 en route to the funeral of Montazeri. He was released in June on bail after serving 170 days in Vakilabad prison. He has not yet received a sentence for his arrest or imprisonment.

He was rearrested last month in Mashhad, in north-eastern Iran, after being summoned to Mashad Revolutionary courts to be questioned about his activities since his release.

According to reports from his wife, Marzieh Pasdar, he is being kept in isolation without access to necessary medical treatment.

It is believed that Ghabel was arrested and detained in response to published reports and interviews given since his release regarding his trial, prison and interrogation.

He has also published information regarding secret mass executions in Vakilabad prison. In interviews, Ghabel claimed that at least 50 prisoners had been hung during his detention in Ward 6/1 of Vakilabad.

According to his wife, Marzieh Pasdar, the hearing was held in branch five of the Revolutionary Court in Mashhad, in the presence of Ghabel's lawyer and family members.

Pasdar confirmed that there was no representative for the prosecution present at the hearing, and Ghabel was questioned about his intentions relating to the charges against him. Ghabel denied the charges and stressed that he had "in fact acted against those who act against the principles of Islam and law".

The case has been postponed for 10 days.

Ghabel was previously arrested in 2001 and spent 125 days in solitary confinement in Evin prison after writing a public letter criticising Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Tunisia: New report details suppression of student unions

A report released by Human Rights Watch on 21 October 2010 details the restrictions faced by independent trade and student unions in Tunisia.

The 62 page report, The Price of Independence: Silencing labour and student unions in Tunisia, documents a tight system of control against unions and unionists who have criticised government policies.

The Tunisian government does not recognise trade unions that operate independently of government control, despite many having following the required registration process for legal status.

According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, "using methods ranging from bureaucratic machinations to physical aggression, the Tunisian government is keeping Tunisia's unions under its thumb".

Tunisian authorities have also prevented members of independent trade unions from meeting, and have arrested and arbitrarily detained individuals, with a number of allegations of abuse and torture.

The General Union for Tunisian Students (UGET) has, HRW states, been the target of government crackdowns, with the persecution, arrest and alleged torture of its members.

In October 2009, a peaceful student demonstration at Monouba University resulted in 17 students being imprisoned for between one and three years on charges including destruction of property and assault. No clear evidence was presented to the court to support this.

In February 2010, five student members of the union were charged with assault at sit-ins at the Higher Institute of Economics in 2007, to protest a university ban on a general assembly before the UGET's elections, and were sentenced to a year and eight months in prison. Again, the government did not provide clear evidence to substantiate the charges.

Those detained have alleged police torture and forced confessions, allegations which the court has refused to investigate.

The right of citizens to form unions independent of government interference is secured in Tunisia's constitution and labour dode.

Despite this, Whitson said, "by clamping down on efforts by students to organise independently, just as it represses independent labour union activity, the government shows its determination to stifle peaceful protest movements wherever they emerge".

US: Chinese-financed centres cause concerns over academic freedom

The establishment of Confucius Institutes in higher education institutions across the United States is causing concern about political interference among academics, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on 17 October 2010.

Since the first Confucius Institute was established in 2004, 61 Institutes have been opened across the US, receiving significant financial support from the People's Republic of China.

Some faculty members and experts on Chinese politics have voiced concern that the proliferation of the institutes presents a threat to academic freedom due to the way in which they involve the Chinese government in university affairs.

David Prager Branner, adjunct associate professor of East Asian languages and culture at Columbia University who has studied the Confucius Institutes, told the Chronicle that universities could become dependent on Chinese funds and susceptible to political pressure to restrict free speech, for example on Tibetan independence.

In January 2010, the University of Oregon resisted pressure by Chinese authorities to cancel a lecture by Peng Ming-Min, an advocate of Taiwanese independence. The University of Calgary was removed from the Chinese governments list of accredited universities following its decision to award the Dalai Lama an honorary degree.

A number of universities in the US, however, have reported no interference by the Chinese government in university affairs. Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, told the Chronicle that the Confucius Institute "had been free to cover some topics that are controversial and sensitive in China".

* Roisin Joyce is Deputy Director of the Network for Education and Academic Rights, NEAR