Iranian scholar faces threat of death sentence

An Iranian-born scholar imprisoned in Iran since April 2016 in connection with international collaboration with scholars from countries considered to be 'enemy states' has been threatened with a charge that carries the death sentence, according to human rights organisations.

Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, 45, an Iranian-born resident of Sweden, and visiting professor in disaster medicine, has reportedly been forced to sign a confession admitting to crimes against the national security of Iran.

A research associate in disaster medicine at the Center for Research and Education in Emergency and Disaster Medicine at the Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale – University of Eastern Piedmont – in Italy, Djalali was arrested by the Iranian security forces in April last year after travelling to Iran to participate in a series of academic workshops, according to Scholars at Risk, the New-York-based scholar rescue network.

He was held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, Tehran, for seven months without access to a lawyer, and allowed only a two-minute call every fortnight to his family – his wife and two children aged five and 14.

Robert Quinn, executive director of the New-York based Scholars at Risk network, said the threat to Djalali’s well-being is a matter of grave concern for the scholar and his family. But it is also a matter of grave concern to “everyone who understands how cross-border academic activity spreads knowledge and best practices and practical solutions to pressing problems”, he said.

Quinn said when scholars like Djalali – who was working on disaster relief – travel and share their knowledge around the world it saves and improves lives. The same is true for climate scientists, physicists, social scientists and humanists.

“When governments arbitrarily interfere with such academic activity – generally in service of local political constituencies – the negative impacts are not abstract and not limited to the individual imprisoned or threatened, but can have deep and lasting impacts on the everyday lives of potentially millions of people all over the world.”

Djalali teaches as a visiting professor in the European Master in Disaster Medicine, a joint masters programme of the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy, and the Free University of Brussels, or VUB, in Belgium.

Scholars at Risk is calling for Djalali's release and for him to be afforded proper due process, medical care and access to family. The organisation has issued a call to action, urging academics worldwide to join a letter campaign for Djalali’s release.

Not interested in politics

Ives Hubloue, the head of VUB's Research Group on Emergency and Disaster Medicine, told Science magazine: “Ahmadreza is passionate about science. He's not interested in politics. We don't believe he would do anything at all to undermine the Iranian government.”

Previously when he travelled to Iran, Djalali did not have any problems, according to information provided on a petition signed by 187,000 people, which calls for his release.

Scholars at Risk said Djalali has reportedly been on a hunger strike on four separate occasions, including a current ongoing hunger strike. He has reportedly lost close to 20 kilograms of bodyweight.

According to Amnesty International in a statement on 7 February, he has been on a hunger strike since 26 December in protest at his detention and has lost nearly a quarter of his body weight.

On 1 February, Djalali reportedly informed his sister that he had been forced to sign a confession, the exact contents of which are unknown, but which relates to crimes against the national security of Iran.

Following the confession, it was reported that Djalali had been sentenced to the death penalty, to be executed within two weeks.

Caroline Pauwels, rector of the Free University of Brussels or VUB, said: “A scientist performing important humanitarian work gets sentenced and is looking at the death penalty. This is an outrageous violation of universal human rights, against which we should react decisively.”

However, new reports indicate that he was threatened with a charge for a crime that carries the death sentence rather than actually sentenced.

Dr Djalali’s wife and academic colleagues have all strongly rejected any possible national security charges against him, citing his dedication to international scientific collaboration.

Hubloue has suggested that the fact that the joint masters programme attracts students and professors from countries around the world, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel might be the problem, but stressed that Djalali in his international collaboration would only have been concerned with the science of saving lives.

Quinn said the Iranian action against Djalali and other scholars will make foreign-based scholars “think twice before visiting Iranian institutions or basing projects or events in Iran, with good reason, as it calls into question whether they will be allowed to enter, work and exit freely and safely”.

US travel ban implications

But he added that Djalali's situation informs understanding of the recent US executive order on immigration signed by US President Donald Trump. He said it exposes the US order as another example of arbitrary state interference with peaceful academic activity, apparently in service of local political considerations rather than the actual merits of any individual case.

He said the Djalali case highlights the arbitrariness of the content of the order, in as much as he comes from one of the seven countries included in the blanket ban.

“If international campaigns for Dr Djalali's release were to be successful tomorrow, he arguably might not be admissible into the US under the terms of the ban. This makes no sense: Why exclude the many scholars and students we work with at Scholars at Risk who share and risk everything for the values of free inquiry, freedom of thought and free expression, especially those from troubled countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria?

“History shows that the wiser course is to welcome those like Dr Djalali who endure much in the name of these values we share, not to ban them because we are too afraid, hurried or short-sighted to distinguish between them and any unrelated few who may actually seek to do us harm.”

Djalali has a PhD in science (disaster medicine) from Karolinksa Institute, Sweden.