Attacks on universities, scholars, students unabated

Even as the international community is raising its voice against the killing of higher education professionals in Pakistan, the assassination of intellectuals and violent killing of students continues unabated.

On the evening of 13 April a student of journalism, identified in some reports as Mohammad Mashal and in others as Mashal Khan, was beaten and killed, reportedly shot dead, at the campus of Mardan city's Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan over claims that he shared blasphemous content on Facebook, AP and Reuters reported.

Police arrested at least 10 people in connection with the incident. The warden of the hostel where the student lived told police a large mob numbering several thousand students had approached the hostel and broken through the gate before killing him, local media reported.

On 7 April veterinary professor Ashfaq Ahmed was killed in Lahore. Ahmed who had retired as a professor from Lahore University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, was being driven by his grandson when a motorcyclist pulled up next to their car and fired at point-blank range, killing him on the spot in the Sabzazar area of Lahore city, Punjab province.

Ashfaq held a PhD in food and nutrition and belonged to the Ahmadi community – an often-persecuted minority in Pakistan, according to the daily newspaper Dawn. Although police say they do not have clues to the attacker’s identity, it was believed to be faith-based, according to the report.

Just a week before, a Human Rights Watch report released on 27 March, Dreams Turned into Nightmares, highlighted unusually frequent attacks on students, teachers, schools and universities in Pakistan.

This is not a new phase of violence. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has drawn attention to the alarming situation in Pakistan in the past, reporting in 2014 that there had been 838 or more attacks on schools in the country from 2009-12, but also a spate of attacks on higher education including targeted killings of academics and students opposed to Baloch nationalism, and some bombings directed at university buildings and students.

In its March 2015 report on terrorist attacks on education, The Educationist stated Pakistan was the worst-hit country with Nigeria the second, basing its report on the Global Terrorism Database. Terrorist attacks on education institutions and against academics significantly increased after 2014 with the scale and lethality of attacks growing to "alarming levels", it said.

The New-York based Scholars at Risk or SAR network on 6 April announced it had filed a submission for the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review process, expressing grave concern over threats to Pakistan’s academic freedom and the ability of its higher education space to function in a safe, free and open manner.

The purpose of the Universal Periodic Review process, to which all UN member states are subjected, is to assess how a given country is complying with its obligations to protect human rights, and what that country has done to improve its human rights practices since its last review.

The SAR submission, based on data collected by its Academic Freedom Monitor project, highlights three major threats to Pakistan’s higher education sector: mass attacks on higher education institutions, violent attacks on individual scholars and students, and the country’s blasphemy law.

Institutions attacked

The SAR submission reports three mass attacks on higher education communities since 2013, including the October 2016 attack on the Balochistan Police College which left 62 dead and 120 injured.

They also include the Bacha Khan University attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on 20 January 2016 which left at least 20 dead including students and two staff members, and 30 injured.

The Bacha Khan attack was carried out by the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, in retaliation against a Pakistan army offensive launched under the country’s National Action Plan. The plan was devised after a brutal attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 that left 144 schoolchildren and staff dead, a particularly shocking attack on a civilian school.

Other attacks have specifically targeted women’s institutions. In June 2013, some 14 female students were killed and 20 seriously injured in a bomb attack on a university bus inside the campus of Sardar Bahadur Khan Women's University in Quetta, Balochistan.

In an October 2009 attack on Islamabad's International Islamic University, six were killed, including four female postgraduate students, and some 29 were injured including 25 women students. The attack was carried out in the women-only section of the university.

Inadequate security

The authorities have been unable to protect institutions from the rising number of attacks with major casualties, university leaders say, and universities have not been provided with additional funds to meet the security requirements as ordered by the state authorities, academics complain.

Tahir Amin, vice-chancellor of Multan's Bahauddin Zakariya University, told University World News, that with every terrorist attack in different parts of Pakistan, the institution's management “is advised by the police and other district management authorities to be more vigilant. We are already vigilant but increasing surveillance and security around campuses requires additional financial resources which we do not have."

Muhammad Idrees, vice-chancellor of Hazara University, Mansehra, says: "Police contingents are provided to universities for a few days after every attack and then the situation becomes ‘normal’, police guards withdrawn and surveillance reduced. That is the time when it becomes an opportunity for the terrorists to make another attack on another education institution.”

Arshad Ali, executive director of the Higher Education Commission, says: “We have advised universities to increase security staff, increase check-posts, use metal detectors at entry points and install surveillance cameras but all these things in place are not sufficient to prevent any terrorist attack, as terrorists use very lethal weapons and usually the security personnel at the entry points are their first target to make entry into the campus.

“Securing universities is not possible without the support of paramilitary forces which should be deputed at the campuses," he says.

Attacks on individuals

Targeted killings of professors and school teachers is also one of the major concerns. Besides the recent killing of Professor Ashfaq in Lahore, there have been many incidents including abductions by outlawed organisations to silence the voices of academics.

Ajmal Khan, vice-chancellor of Islamia College University, Peshawar, was abducted by the Pakistani Taliban while on his way to the university in September 2010. He was only recovered in August 2014 by law enforcement agencies after four years in Taliban captivity.

According to the SAR submission, at least eleven targeted attacks on individual scholars have been reported since 2013. The most recent one cited in the report is the killing of Professor Amanullah Achakzai, principal of the University Law College Quetta, on 8 June 2016 by unidentified gunmen on motorbikes as Achakzai was driving to campus. No one has so far claimed responsibility for the attack, nor have the authorities identified a suspect.

On 6 January, Salman Haider, a human rights activist and psychology professor from Fatima Jinnah Women University, Rawalpindi, was reportedly abducted. He was released and reunited with his family on 27 January.

Blasphemy law

SAR’s UN submission also analyses legislative challenges to academic freedom in Pakistan, including a blasphemy law, Section 295-C, which is “a key concern for scholars and students who debate and discuss diverse and controversial ideas”, SAR says.

The law, which can carry the death sentence, concerns “a wide range of expression, including innuendo and indirect communications”, that “defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad”.

One of SAR’s main concerns is that the law contains no element of intent, thus permitting listeners or readers to allege blasphemous content which may be the basis for a conviction and potential death sentence. Their submission highlights the case of Junaid Hafeez, a graduate student and adjunct lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University, arrested in March 2013 after a leaflet accusing him of making blasphemous statements on Facebook was circulated.

Throughout legal proceedings that continue today, Hafeez has gone through four attorneys, one of whom was assassinated in May 2014 in apparent retaliation for taking on his case.

Protection measures

SAR has also made a submission to the Pakistani government to take concrete measures to protect higher education communities, institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and introduce “strong legislation” prohibiting attacks against scholars, students and higher education institutions and to investigate threats to higher education within Pakistan.

"Due to the extraordinary situation of terrorist attacks, we have lifted a moratorium on the death penalty, and by an act of parliament we have set up military courts for speedy disposal of cases of terrorism,” Rana Shamim Ahmed Khan, chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee on the Interior, told University World News, adding that “the government has increased police patrolling, installed surveillance cameras and trained university guards".

"Such attacks on universities can be prevented by more vigilance but academic institutions are comparatively soft targets for terrorists as these institutions cannot be guarded like other offices and buildings as thousands of people, including students, parents, teachers and other visitors, come to different departments of the universities on a daily basis," Khan says.

Two years ago, Pakistan's parliament enacted an amendment to the constitution to set up military courts. Four terrorists involved in the Peshawar school massacre were tried in the same courts and hanged in December 2015. The tenure of these courts was extended by another two years in a new enactment in March this year.

The Higher Education Commission's Arshad Ali says the entire academic community in Pakistan demands the protection of scholars but he linked the issue with the overall security situation of the country and hoped the "situation would become better for academics as well when terrorism would be rooted out from our country".

Commenting on the SAR submission, Javed Ashraf, vice-chancellor of Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, says: "We have been crying out for the same, and demanding protection for scholars not only from terrorists but also from other groups who target academics for their personal views."

The trend of "using bullets against arguments" must be forcefully stopped as only the government can assure that the perpetrators of heinous crimes of killing and harassing academic voices are brought to justice and that those scholars who speak in favour of freedom of expression are protected, Ashraf said.