Lessons from the arrest of Alexander Sodiqov

Several weeks have passed since Alexander Sodiqov, an international student at the University of Toronto, was released after being arrested in Khorog, Tajikistan. His arrest occurred while working on a research contract for Britain’s University of Exeter. Student groups, academic associations and Sodiqov’s colleagues at both universities were vocal in critiquing the Tajik government. A global petition was circulated calling for his release.

This case resonates with all of us who are new academic researchers, with young families, working on various contracts as we complete our PhDs.

It is not – as some suggest – an exceptional case of complex citizenship and internal state politics, but rather a testing ground for the strength of the university as a global actor and a testament to the precariousness of new academics in an age of transnational research.

The stakeholders

Perhaps the most pressing question raised by this case is who is responsible to intervene when an academic researcher is arrested?

At the time of Sodiqov’s arrest on 16 June 2014 he was connected to several communities: he is a Tajik citizen, he is an international student at the University of Toronto in Canada and his immediate employment was conducting interviews for a study on civil society run by faculty at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Sodiqov also has connections to Tajikistan’s NGO community, having worked most recently as the communications officer for UNICEF’s Tajik operations.

He belongs loosely to multiple organisations in multiple nations. And his position is not unique. Many young academics are contracted to do extra projects while in the field for their PhDs and many travel to high risk countries to complete their research.

Often Western researchers call on the support of their embassy when they encounter difficulty. But when researchers are threatened by their own state it is essential that the various communities of which they are a part, as well as their hosting governments, offer a collective plea and take steps to facilitate their release.

Universities and safety programming

Many universities make a significant effort on a student programming level, to ensure the safety of students while abroad. They run pre-travel workshops, register students with local embassies and monitor their travels closely.

Sodiqov’s case is particularly interesting as it follows a year of active promotion by the University of Toronto’s safety abroad office requiring that all students register their travels online and maintain contact with the university while away.

Graduate students are often sceptical of the programme. They consider it more relevant for teenage undergraduates heading abroad for the first time, rather than the independent, adult researcher.

Sodiqov’s case clearly confirms the risks involved in graduate research. But it also calls into question the limits a university can or should put on researchers.

For a number of international students in the social sciences, their research interests are directly related to the unstable nation-state they call home and the aim of their dissertation is to contribute in some meaningful way.

Universities need to value this dynamic international research by both allowing students to travel to these locations and doing all in their power to prepare them and facilitate their safety.

Universities as global actors

Ultimately, a crisis like Sodiqov’s is beyond the scope of a university’s student safety office.

In an era where internationalisation is the hallmark of a successful university, leading institutions have extensive research interests around the world. These universities need to further strengthen their diplomatic networks and affirm their presence as global stakeholders in the political realm.

Universities are being asked to contribute to national issues of immigration, industry and foreign aid. They should also clearly request governmental support for their diplomatic needs.

With the arrest of a student researcher, the Canadian and UK universities to which this student is a contributor, need to be the first voices pressing governments and political agencies for action.

International students as temporary citizens

The wellbeing of international students has been a recurring theme in Canada over the past few years.

In Sodiqov’s case, the supposed complication was his arrest in his country of origin and there seemed to be no consensus on what Canada and the UK owed him as his host and employer countries.

Fortunately, NGOs in Tajikistan suggest the Canadian and UK embassies were very active in this case – and that seemed appropriate.

After all, the unprecedented increase in international student recruitment is a direct result – in both countries – of intentional government strategy.

International students have become an essential component of financial and thus academic survival for the national university systems.

Surely, an international student who is hosted or contributes to a Western university and is arrested in the employ of their projects should be offered the intervention and advocacy of those Western governments.

Returning researchers as valued citizens

In the end, the decision to release Alexander Sodiqov was in the hands of the Tajik authorities. And it is to Tajikistan's benefit that he was released. He is a citizen of whom Tajikistan can be proud.

In an era where too many international students view their studies as a chance to emigrate permanently, Sodiqov chose to return to Tajikistan for his research and continue the NGO work that strengthens his nation.

In the website campaigns for the release of Alexander Sodiqov there was an emphasis on his upstanding character and contributions to Tajikistan as a country. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this high character was his commitment to return there for his research, a commitment that ended with him being imprisoned.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada. The content of this article is part of an ongoing research project on the impact of international programmes on students’ identity, learning and skills. Please email Grace Karram Stephenson for more information: