Life sentence sends a message of fear to other academics

The sentencing of Durham University PhD researcher Matthew Hedges to life imprisonment in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on 21 November is causing further shock and alarm for academics carrying out research in the Middle East, who are already shaken by the murder of Saudi Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October.

The UAE government said in a statement that “powerful and compelling” evidence was presented in court after a thorough investigation by the public prosecutor. But according to a spokeswoman for Hedges' family he was sentenced after a five-minute hearing without legal representation and based on a document he was forced to sign, which was written in Arabic, a language he does not speak or read.

Before the hearing he was held in solitary confinement for six months without access to a legal counsel, the family said.

If researchers and journalists can be locked up or even brutally murdered at will by the authorities of countries that dislike the focus of their research or investigations, the implications for academic freedom and the pressure to self-censor are grave. It also raises questions about how academics carrying out such work can be better protected.

The recently published Free to Think 2018 report of the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project noted that state authorities in a range of countries are frequently retaliating against the work of scholars and students who challenge the norms, beliefs and established structures of powers.

They do this by restricting scholars’ and students’ academic work and expression, launching criminal investigations, issuing warrants, ordering detentions and other coercive legal measures, often under the cover of laws related to terrorism, national security and defamation.

“As a result, scholars and students are silenced, subjected to lengthy trials and appalling prison conditions, and ultimately made to suffer irreparable harm to their careers and personal well-being,” the report noted.

For the authorities, the real value of these tactics lies in their deterrent effect to higher education communities, sending a message that there is a line that cannot be crossed.

In the year to September, Scholars at Risk reported 104 incidents where scholars and students were imprisoned or prosecuted in connection with their academic work or expressive activities.

These included a PhD student arrested in Egypt while conducting interviews, as well as scholars detained incommunicado in Saudi Arabia for their women’s rights activism.

Most fearful message

The cases of Hedges and Khashoggi – whose body was reportedly dismembered and has not been recovered – send the most fearful messages possible to researchers contemplating research that might be deemed critical by authoritarian and undemocratic regimes.

The Free to Think report calls on all states to protect higher education communities within their territories, abstain from attacks on them, including by criminal and legislative actions, and review laws used to prosecute scholars and students and “amend or repeal them as necessary to ensure they can exercise their rights to academic freedom and other constituent rights”.

There is an onus also on the governments of academics and students facing illegal detention, imprisonment or threats to apply pressure on authoritarian regimes responsible to adhere to international law, irrespective of the potential impact on their trade deals or military collaboration with those countries.

Taqadum al-Khatib, PhD scholar at Princeton University and Berlin Free University and the former coordinator of the political communications dossier with the Egyptian National Association for Change, told University World News in the wake of the Khashoggi murder that it is a reminder that “autocratic regimes are still using their embassies and offices of cultural attachés abroad to purse, harass and intimidate academic political opponents, pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders".

"I have a personal experience myself in state-sponsored harassment that ended up in cancelling my scholarship, firing me from my home-based university and finally my name was entered in arrival anticipation lists at each point of entry to the country,” he said.

For many academics under threat the only hope of protection is to find a way out of the country. There are a number of scholar rescue organisations internationally that help arrange and support temporary relocation to academic posts in other countries for threatened scholars to provide protection and-or advocate on their behalf.

These organisations include Amnesty International, the Academy in Exile, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Council for At-Risk Academics, Endangered Scholars Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, the New University in Exile Consortium, the Scholars at Risk Network, Scholar Rescue Fund, and the Science4Refugees initiative.

Annabelle Wilmott, programme associate at Scholars at Risk (SAR), told University World News that universities in the SAR network provide protection for threatened academics in the form of short-term, temporary posts of academic refuge at their institutions and do take security into account when determining whether or not to publicise a scholar's visit, for example, and how they would like to be identified on campus.

"International organisations can help promote academic freedom by participating in SAR's work to monitor attacks against higher education communities and by pressuring authorities to adhere to human rights principles in their actions," Wilmott added.

"Additionally, they can encourage universities they are affiliated with to join the SAR network and make referrals of threatened academics to SAR."

Respect for international agreements

Al-Khatib said that academic political opponents living in exile should be protected within the framework of “respect for international agreements".

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor in global thought and comparative philosophies and chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, UK, told University World News: "The United Nations and its associate institutions should accelerate the effort to criminalise turning universities and its academic staff into targets.”

He added that universities have a “democratic duty to be at the forefront of the battle to protect dissidents”. This is because they are “incubators of civilisation and culture, embattled in our era by illiberal policies of states steeped in psycho-nationalism”.

He suggested that every university should have an "office of free speech and dissent" where such matters would be dealt with by the administration in conjunction with senior academics.

UNESCO Science Prize laureate Atta-ur-Rahman, president of the Network of Academies of Sciences of Islamic Countries, told University World News that universities should “create an environment where free thinking and debate with opposing viewpoints is encouraged".

He said when these views conflict with prevailing government policies, government leaders have the responsibility to be tolerant to dissenting viewpoints, protect the dissenters and indeed subject such controversial issues to open public debate.

Atta-ur-Rahman, who is also a former coordinator general of the Ministerial Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57-country Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, added: "The key to research and progress lies in promoting critical thinking, which many of our leaders do not understand. Blind belief to orthodoxy leads to societal decay.”

Dana Moss, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh in the US, and author of a 2016 report, “Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization and the Case of the Arab Spring”, told University World News that universities can help protect dissidents from authoritarian states who are on their staff by taking any reasons why they believe their life may be in danger seriously and by then using their resources and connections to openly condemn harmful interference.

“Increasing exposure and publicising the different types of tactics that regimes use to intimidate, control and punish dissidents abroad will pressure political leaders and human rights groups to lend their attention to these problems, which may deter regimes from using these tactics in the future due to the unwanted publicity or sanctions that can follow,” Moss said.

‘Legitimate research’

Following the life-sentencing of Hedges, his current and former universities of Durham and Exeter, both well known for their research and expertise on the Gulf, issued a joint statement insisting there is no evidence whatsoever that he was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research and his work was carried out in full accordance with Durham University’s research and ethics procedures.

“The detention of any academic researcher cuts to the core of the principles of academic endeavour. It is absolutely vital that academics the world over are free to conduct legitimate research without fear of interference or arrest,” they said.

“Both universities will continue to do whatever they can to secure Matt’s release and we call upon the authorities in the UK and the UAE to work actively towards returning Matt to his wife, family and friends.”