Where academics are hounded as ‘enemies’ of the state

On 15 January 2014, Chinese police raided the home of Ilham Tohti, a Chinese economics professor and advocate for the rights of the Uighur ethnic minority group. They seized computers, mobile phones, passports and students’ essays.

The professor and seven of his students were arrested. They were reportedly held incommunicado for respectively five and eight months, without access to a lawyer.

Professor Tohti was charged last July and in September, as reported by University World News, he was subjected to a closed criminal trial. He was accused of spreading “lessons containing separatist thoughts” via his website, Uighur Online.

His defence lawyers said they were denied access to evidence in advance of the trial and were barred from calling defence witnesses during it.

Human rights groups suspect that recorded statements by three of the students – that were presented as evidence that the professor sought to stir ethnic tensions and anti-government sentiment – were made under coercion.

The professor was found guilty of advocating independence for the region of Xinjian, attacking government policies related to family planning and ethnic and religious issues, expressing support for ‘terrorists’, and ‘internationalising’ the issue of Uighur rights by speaking to foreign journalists.

He was sentenced to life in prison and the court ordered the confiscation of his assets.

In December the students were sentenced to three to eight years in prison, also on charges related to separatism. Reports indicated that the three students whose statements were used against the professor received shorter sentences.

Professor Tohti’s story was reported last week in a new report, Free to Think, published by the New-York based Scholars at Risk’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.

The Scholars at Risk, or SAR, report rightly highlights that 485 higher education students and members of staff were killed in its four and a half year reporting period, as reported in the University World News news section this week.

The incidents ranged from individuals being picked off by unidentified gunmen to mass attacks with guns or bombs by armed groups, which are reported across the world.

But an interesting finding below the headline figures is the extent to which state authorities, even in non-conflict countries, are using violence, imprisonment and lower levels of intimidation to put pressure on students and academics in order to silence alternative points of view.

Many of these go under the radar of international media attention but collectively stymie the legitimate work of universities as places where plurality of view and critical thinking are encouraged in order to widen and deepen knowledge to the benefit of all.

As the report says, attacks on higher education “are not limited to conflict, instability or overt violence”.

Detention without charge

In many societies members of higher education communities, including administrators, scholars and students, regularly suffer arrest, interrogation, detention with or without charges, prosecution and imprisonment, the SAR report says.

The monitoring project considers such conduct “wrongful” when the application of coercive legal authority is intended to punish, deter or impede academic speech, content or conduct, or, in the case of imprisonment, when the intent is to sanction a member of the higher education community for their exercise of protected rights.

The monitors have documented at least 86 incidents involving prosecution or imprisonment of members of higher education communities in 37 countries, including China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.

The report says these represent only a small fraction of the overall problem. By their nature informal detentions and interrogations may take place in isolated areas out of view, limiting the possibility of there being witnesses.

“They often include implied or explicit threats of retaliation or violence against the individual, colleagues or family for speaking publicly, making identifying and monitoring incidents even more difficult,” the report says.

Restricting critical inquiry

Prosecutions of individual scholars and students are typically brought under laws aimed at restricting critical inquiry and expression, SAR says. In particular these include “opaque and overbroad blasphemy, lèse majesté, civil and criminal defamation, sedition and terrorism laws which make illegal the mere expression of opinions or ideas on certain topics, without any link to violent or otherwise criminal acts or intentions whatsoever”.

The report cites the example of Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer at the University of Malaya in Malaysia, who in September last year was charged under the Sedition Act for giving an interview to a newspaper in which he compared the current constitutional crisis with an earlier one, based on case law and democratic principles.

Similarly, in August 2014 in Thailand, Khon Kaen University student Patiwat Saraiyaem and activist Pornthip Mankong were arrested on charges of lèse majesté, or insulting the crown, for attempting to stage a satirical play at Thammasat University a year earlier.

And in Saudi Arabia, Yousef al-Khoder, a Qassim University law professor, was convicted on a charge of inciting disorder, providing false information about Saudi Arabia to international organisations and media, and taking part in the founding of an unlicensed human rights organisation. He received an eight year sentence, which was later overturned, although he remains in detention pending trial, the report says.

Tyrell Haberkorn, SAR’s researcher for Thailand, says the Thai lèse majesté law is used in combination with a range of other legal instruments to “restrict the freedom of expression and political freedom of academics”. Many of these instruments have resulted from the changes brought about by the military coup of May 2014.

Haberkorn is a fellow in political and social change at the Australian National University and is currently writing her third book about violence, human rights and cultural politics in Thailand.

She told University World News that after the coup, until 1 April this year, martial law was used to interrupt academic seminars and arbitrarily detain those who dared to protest in the streets or who had been marked as dissident prior to the coup for up to seven days of ‘attitude adjustment’ in secret incommunicado locations.

When martial law was revoked on 1 April, the junta issued executive orders to ensure the same detention and ‘attitude adjustment’ practices continued. In addition, it extended the use of military courts to try civilians and greatly extended the use of the lèse majesté law and its stipulated punishment of three to 15 years.

“The widespread criminalisation of dissident thinking and protest means that the space for critical thinking inside universities is shrinking. Lecturers and students must all be careful of what they write, say and do, even inside the classroom,” says Haberkorn,

According to the SAR report, by sanctioning the mere expression of thought, lèse majesté and similar laws threaten the freedom to think itself. “They impose artificial boundaries on research, teaching and publication, undermining quality, creativity and innovation.”

Forced into hiding

The power to sanction, once granted, “resists constraint”, the report adds, citing the example in Pakistan of a blasphemy law ostensibly intended to protect threatened social values, but which threatens the heart of higher education and society itself.

“The mere allegation is enough to cause scholars to lose their positions and force them into hiding or exile,” the report says.

For example, Bahauddin Zakariya University English professor Junaid Hafeez was accused by a student of posting a blasphemous statement on Facebook and quickly had to flee as a mob gathered on campus demanding action against him.

He was later arrested, charged under the blasphemy law and jailed pending trial, where he remains, and those defending the accused face similar attacks. Defence lawyers in such cases regularly report death threats. In May 2014 Professor Hafeez’s defence lawyer was assassinated in his office. He had taken over the case after his predecessor dropped out due to death threats.

According to Rafia Zakaria, SAR’s country-based researcher for Pakistan, academics are soft targets because, unlike the elite, they can’t afford to protect themselves and the blasphemy law has become an all-purpose tool for silencing people, and in effect a way of crowd sourcing violence.

In the case of mob attacks over alleged blasphemy, the state is complicit, she argues, because there is no political will to change or end the law.

“Once an allegation is made, everyone is afraid: the police are afraid to register the case, and judges are afraid to decide the case, because they don’t want to become subject to those mobs.”

In some cases there is evidence that extremist groups have gathered the mob – their flags and activists are seen at the scene. Other cases are more ambiguous and this is used by the government to say, “We don’t know who is behind it so we can’t arrest anyone,” Zakaria says.

“Lots of people are silenced or in exile because of the blasphemy law. You never even get a trial,” she adds. “There are thousands of pending blasphemy petitions but judges are too afraid to hear the case.”

Attacking the idea of education

In Pakistan’s case the effect of the state’s complicitness in allowing extremist groups a free hand to persecute academics is to leave the very idea of education under attack.

“In this country,” Zakaria says, “you have people who believe that scientific knowledge and rational based thinking is the product of the colonial era and there should just be theistic learning, based on the Koran. That is why universities are under attack.

“It is also true that if you destroy liberal scholars, especially those who are teaching Islam or Islamic studies, the potential to have a counter ideology to the extremist ideology is eliminated.

“So there is a strategic and tactical aspect to attacks. On the one hand they are saying we are going to take over this space and impose our hegemony over it. And in the long run we are going to destroy people who might enable people to think about what is happening in a different way.”

Targeting demonstrators

The flip side to complicity in persecution by the mob is when authorities try to characterise groups of legitimate protesters as a threat in order to justify violence by the forces of the state against them.

In Venezuela, for instance, according to the Center for Human Rights of the Andrés Bello Catholic University of Caracas, the Minister of the Interior, Justice and Peace accused students of terrorism, assassination, coup d’état, possession of drugs, weapons and explosives, in an attempt to demonise student protests. Yet no detainee has been accused of any of the crimes listed, according SAR’s country-based researcher for Venezuela, Mayda Hocevar.

The context is one of high social tension. Venezuela is suffering rampant inflation – at 68% – and acute shortages of food, medicine and other goods and is experiencing extreme insecurity and high levels of impunity, says Hocevar, who is a professor of theory of law at the University of Los Andes.

“The public powers are all under the government control. The government has persecuted and imprisoned opposition leaders and there is no independent judiciary.”

Peaceful and social protests have been severely repressed and attacks on universities have increased since the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court decided in April last year that peaceful demonstrations and public meetings had to be authorised, she says.

The situation worsened in January this year when the Defense Ministry authorised military forces to control and repress civilian demonstrations, giving them freedom to decide when to use potentially mortal weapons against protesters.

According to SAR, attacks on universities have included shootings, use of tear gas and pepper gas, the burning of university libraries, campus radio stations and medical facilities.

Student protesters and activists, in particular, have been targeted. During February-May 2014, when social and student protests were most intense, more than 50 attacks to more than 20 universities were counted, Hocevar says.

“The attacks came mainly from the Bolivarian national guard, the national and regional police forces and also from the so-called colectivos – illegally armed civilians that sometimes act on their own and sometimes in collaboration with public forces,” Hocevar says.

In January this year there were mass arrests of protesters at the University of Los Andes. In February two students were injured while protesting against the killing on 24 February of a 14-year-old student. In May, Conan Quintana, a university student leader from Universidad Pedagógica Experimental Libertador, Caracas, was killed in unknown circumstances. And on 20 May, 15 students from the University of Los Andes, Mérida, were injured while protesting against Quintana’s death.

Punitive employment actions

More subtle forms of attacks on higher education include punitive employment or administrative actions, such as loss of position, demotion, and denial of promotion, with the intention of deterring or impeding academic speech, content or conduct, or temporary or permanent expulsion of students. The SAR monitors documented 37 such incidents in 22 countries including Egypt, Malaysia and Russia.

In addition, states frequently restrict scholars’ and students’ freedom of movement, as yet another means of controlling access to information and limiting inquiry and expression – and this can also be a direct attack on internationalisation.

The monitors documented 12 instances of restrictions on travel or movement in seven countries, including China, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, but stressed that these are just the visible tip of the iceberg.

“Evidence suggests that many states deny exit, entry or return to scholars because of academic speech, content or conduct, either in isolated cases of a single scholar or publication, or more systematic denials of anyone proposing research on restricted or sensitive themes,” the report says.

Barred from travel

In the case of house arrest, scholars are typically barred from travel outside of tightly circumsubscribed zones and limited in their ability to attend or hold meetings or even communicate with others, and such restrictions are often accompanied by “continuous or interval surveillance” by state security agents.

“All of these deepen the isolation and leave the scholar vulnerable to more extreme forms of attack, including arrest, prosecution and violence,” the report says.

Other times family members are targeted. Typically this occurs when a scholar has fled threats or attacks in his or her home country and gone into exile. The state may then deny exit permission to family members left behind, effectively holding them hostage in an apparent attempt to either punish the individual or “exert some control over the scholar’s academic or public expression abroad”, the report says.

Attacks on dissident thought

Taking together the various types of pressure used by states, a picture emerges of the authorities in some states seeing universities as a threat precisely because they not only allow, but also encourage, freedom of thought and freedom to question, which is vital to political and other forms of development.

According to Haberkorn, for instance, the 22 May 2014 coup in Thailand represents an explicit attack on dissident thought and freedom of expression.

During the long period of political contention that began prior to the previous coup in Thailand – which took place on 19 September 2006 – there was a tremendous growth of cultural political dissent, she says.

“This included the establishment of small publishing houses and independent bookstores, the emergence of a new generation of critical writers and poets, and the opening of the gates of universities to serve as a place of education and conversation for all of society,” she says.

In particular, during the four years prior to the coup, universities and university seminars became a space not only for students and professors to discuss among themselves, but also for ordinary citizens to join and direct the conversation as well, she says.

“It is clear that this was deeply threatening to the status quo. Academics, publishers, editors and writers were among the first to be targeted for detention and ‘attitude adjustment’ following the coup.”

A year later, students, who are in the front lines of protest, have become the military's primary target.