University collaborations at risk after death sentence

Universities have warned that cooperation agreements with Iranian universities could be put at risk by the conviction and death sentence in Iran of Iranian-Swedish academic Ahmadreza Djalali, in a significant stepping up of pressure on Iranian authorities by universities in Europe and elsewhere.

The German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), the umbrella organisation for some 268 universities in the country, said in a statement on 5 March: "We want to make it clear that we will continue to fight for the freedom of Dr Djalali alongside a number of international partners. Respecting human rights and academic freedom is an indispensable prerequisite for cooperation with Iranian universities."

Universities have become more willing to speak out in the cases of the arrest of dual national Iranian academics detained while visiting Iran. In many cases, Iran does not recognise dual nationality.

At least 11 academics with dual nationality and foreign nationals of Iranian origin are known to be imprisoned in Iran as of January 2019, according to research by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. They include Iranians with American, British, Swedish, Austrian and Canadian citizenship. A number of non-Iranians, including Chinese American, Lebanese American and American citizens are also being held in Iran on various charges.

Some were detained while attending academic workshops in Iran, such as Abbas Edalat, an Iranian-British professor of computer science and mathematics at Imperial College London, who was released after being detained in April 2018, returning to the United Kingdom at the end of December 2018.

But it is the case of Djalali, facing capital punishment, that has caused most concern.

In an open letter last year to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei raising the Djalali case, the HRK said: “We strongly believe that international cooperation must be firmly grounded in the standards of academic freedom and the protection of human rights. Without these principles, a successful and lasting partnership between Iran and Germany will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to uphold.”

The letter signed by HRK President Peter-André Alt, a former president of the Free University of Berlin, came as the Flemish Interuniversity Council last year said Belgian universities would restrict collaboration with Iranian institutions as long as the Iranian government did not guarantee Djalali’s rights.

Sentenced to death

Djalali is an Iranian-Swedish specialist in disaster medicine at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, and a visiting professor at Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He was arrested while visiting Iran in April 2016. Iran accused him of ‘spying for Israel’ and sentenced him to death in October 2017. He has since remained behind bars at Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Sweden granted Djalali citizenship in February 2018, seen as a way for the Swedish government to gain more leverage in negotiations with Tehran after Djalali was sentenced to death.

According to an 11 February news report, Djalali is suffering from major health conditions and is on the brink of death, prompting an outbreak of concern, including the HRK letter which said Djalali’s “conviction, capital sentence, and the affirmation thereof – in addition to the circumstances of his arrest and confinement – suggest a troubling disregard for international standards of academic freedom, due process, fair trial and humane treatment of prisoners, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party”.

According to HRK, there are currently 77 formal agreements between higher education institutions in Germany and Iran, including exchanges of students, doctoral candidates and senior researchers, and encompassing joint research and publications.

“It is a difficult decision to make but we cannot rule out that that point might be reached where German universities’ ongoing relationships and active contacts cannot be continued,” an HRK spokesperson told University World News, but added that German universities were still weighing the consequences of a “hard break”.

“In this very delicate situation it is not a strict black and white watershed moment but an ongoing process where the question is whether we can justify continued contacts [with Iranian universities],” the spokesperson said on 12 March. “On the other hand, we also need to be able to influence the situation, and constantly remind the Iranian government of the value of our relationships.

“We also need to thoroughly consider the impact on other relationships, for example, on German universities’ relations with institutions in Turkey and Russia,” cautioning that it was not just a matter of science policy but diplomatic relations.

Belgian response

Others have taken a stronger stance. “The Flemish Interuniversity Council issued a press statement on 26 April 2018, stating that our universities would no longer embark on institutional cooperation with Iranian universities as long as the Iranian government doesn’t provide verifiable guarantees for the protection of Dr Djalali’s human rights,” Koen Verlaeckt, secretary general of the Flemish Interuniversity Council in Belgium, told University World News.

That official position of halting cooperative agreements between Flemish universities and Iranian educational institutions "remains unaltered", Verlaeckt said, as Djalali has still not been released.

But the break came after a long campaign. "The moment we received the news of the arrest of Dr Djalali, we immediately started campaigning for his release," Caroline Pauwels, rector of Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, told University World News.

"We knew that we could not do this on our own. Therefore, we linked up with colleagues in Sweden and Italy and coordinated our efforts,” she said. Djalali was also a research associate at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Novara, Italy, at the time of his arrest.

“We obtained the wholehearted support of the academic community in Belgium," Pauwels explained. “As a result, the rectors of all Flemish universities decided to restrict their collaboration with Iran.”

They also gained support from the European network of universities UNICA – a grouping of 51 universities from 37 European capital cities – which came together to call for a fair trial for Djalali.

Others advocate keeping channels open. Contacts between national academies of sciences in different countries can sometimes prove to be useful advocates, British molecular biologist and 1993 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Richard Roberts told University World News.

Roberts led a group of 121 Nobel laureates in signing an open letter in December 2018 to Khamenei, calling on him to ensure Djalali is treated “humanely and fairly” and released as soon as possible.

Protection of vulnerable academics

"I imagine that most university personnel believe that once dissidents are in exile, they are safe. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case," Dana Moss, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, and author of a September 2016 report titled Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization, and the Case of The Arab Spring.

“Universities need to be aware that political dissidents from authoritarian states face unique challenges,” Moss told University World News. "If an emigrant or exile has a reason to believe that her or his life may be in danger, it is absolutely incumbent on the university to believe them. They should then expose regime threats, and possibly even provide protection.”

For example, universities could provide personnel to accompany a dissident scholar or student who has to visit their home embassy for some reason, she says.

This has been brought to international attention more recently with the case of Saudi Arabian dissident writer Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018.

This case of what Moss termed “transnational repression” by the Saudi regime, “while very shocking in its brutality, is only one such case, and it will hardly be the last," Moss said.

Pirouz Azadi, a San Francisco-based Iranian-American professor, believes there are other cases of Iranian detentions that “go unnoticed and remain under the radar of public scrutiny” and who “remain most vulnerable throughout their lives”.

Hamza Alfrmawi, an ICT expert at the Islamic Development Bank Alumni and Science Development Network, called for the setting up of a virtual observatory for exiled dissident academics to monitor their status, including tracking their movements and travels along with the threats they face, that range from harassment to arbitrary detention, torture, kidnapping, physical attacks and in the most extreme cases, death.