Attacks against Iranian scholars, students recorded at UN

Attacks against higher education in Iran have been highlighted in a submission filed with the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review – including wrongful detention and prosecution of academics, restrictions on student expression and discrimination against the Baha’i faith.

The 16 April submission to the United Nations in New York was by Scholars at Risk or SAR in cooperation with the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

It describes three major trends involving the rights of scholars and students revealed by data collected by SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project between October 2014 and March 2019.

Firstly, there had been “wrongful imprisonment and prosecution of academics in retaliation for their scholarly work or non-violent exercise of the right to free expression”.

“Iranian authorities have detained and prosecuted a number of scholars and students on national security-related grounds with little or no publicly-released evidentiary support. One scholar was sentenced to death, another died in prison, and many others have suffered from significant health complications while detained,” SAR reported.

Secondly, the authorities had restricted student expression “including the use of violent force, arrests, prosecutions, and administrative and disciplinary proceedings”.

“Following the outbreak of nationwide protests in December 2017 and January 2018, more than 40 university students were reportedly arrested and 150 to 200 students were disciplined by or expelled from their universities for their involvement in the protests.”

Thirdly, there had been discrimination against members of the Baha’i faith in higher education through both administrative and criminal penalties. “Iranian law continues to prohibit members of the Baha’i faith from enrolling in universities,” said SAR.

“During this review period, scores of Baha’i students were expelled from universities, and at least two Baha’i teachers were convicted and sentenced to prison on national security-related charges, in connection with their roles as educators.”

Call for action

SAR urges United Nations member states to call on Iran to reaffirm commitment to academic freedom by, among other things: unconditionally releasing scholars and students held for non-violent academic activity, expression, association or religious identity, and refraining from future arrest and prosecution of such scholars and students.

It calls for the revision of statutes, decrees and practices to comply with international standards relating to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association; repealing policies that discriminate against minorities; and committing to publicly endorsing the Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack.


The Scholars at Risk submission was to the Third Cycle of Universal Periodic Review of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the UN Human Rights Council 34th Session.

During the current periodic review period, SAR received reports from colleagues in and outside Iran, and from the media, describing pressures and attacks on higher education as a result of state and university authorities’ actions and-or policies.

In the past three decades, says SAR, Iranian higher education has grown significantly, especially since the lifting of a prohibition on private universities. “At the same time, public universities’ reputation have improved, with some listed today in international rankings.”

Alongside the growth of higher education, however, the authorities have increased restrictions on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

“In this reporting cycle, SAR has verified at least 25 significant attacks on higher education communities in Iran, including 16 reports involving imprisonment and-or prosecution, three reports of violence, and seven reports of institutional retaliation against scholars and students.” A much larger number of scholars, students and others avoided similar attacks through self-censorship or other restricting activities.

In numerous recent cases, scholars have been arrested and prosecuted in retaliation for scholarly work and other non-violent expression. SAR provides a horrifying list:

  • • On 25 May 2015 Mohammad Hossein Rafiee, a retired chemistry professor and activist, was sentenced to six years in prison and banned for two years from political and media activity, for publishing an analysis of the Iran Nuclear Agreement. He was charged with offences including membership of an illegal, anti-Iranian group, propaganda and use of television satellite equipment. Rafiee, then 71, faced overcrowding, poor sanitation and inadequate nutrition. He was released on medical furlough in September 2016.

  • • On 24 April 2016 Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iran-born citizen of Sweden and specialist in disaster medicine, was arrested and charged with espionage, accused of collaborating with scholars from ‘enemy states’. He has reportedly been held in solitary confinement, denied access to a lawyer of his choosing, subjected to psychological torture, and forced to sign a confession. He has also suffered health problems. On 1 February 2017, he was sentenced to death. Djalali remains detained.

  • • On 6 June 2016 Homa Hoodfar, an Iran-born citizen of Canada, professor of social anthropology at Concordia University in Canada and expert on sexuality and gender in Islam, was arrested on charges of cooperating with a foreign state against Iran. She was accused, among other things, of ‘dabbling in feminism’. She fell seriously ill and was released on humanitarian grounds in September 2016.

  • • On 8 August 2016 authorities arrested Xiyue Wang, an American graduate student from Princeton University, who was conducting doctoral research of public records from the 19th and early 20th centuries in Iran’s national archive. He was charged with espionage and in July 2017 was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Appeal was denied the following month. “He has been held in solitary confinement, and has reportedly suffered extreme stress, depression, attempted suicide, and multiple diseases,” says SAR.

  • • On 24 January 2018 authorities arrested Kevous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian professor of sociology at Imam Sadiq University in Iran and co-founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, along with several others, on charges of espionage. In February 2018 the authorities announced that Seyed-Emami had died in Evin Prison, claiming the cause was suicide. “Seyed-Emami’s death follows two other recent incidents in Evin Prison in which activists’ deaths were later ruled suicides. The circumstances of Seyed-Emami’s death have been described as extremely suspicious.”

  • • On 12 March 2018 Iranian authorities sentenced Sadegh Zibakalam, a prominent professor and political analyst known for his criticism of Iranian state policies, to 18 months in prison on charges of spreading false information and propaganda. “He was also banned for two years from giving public speeches, writing articles, giving interviews, and social media activity. Two months earlier, he had been dismissed without notice from a position at Islamic Azad University.”

  • • On 14 March 2018 Iranian intelligence officials arrested Kingston University art philosophy graduate student Aras Amiri, as she was preparing to leave the country, on charges of assembly and collusion against national security, apparently in connection with her academic work. She remains detained in Evin Prison.

  • • On 15 April 2018 Abbas Edalat, a British-Iranian professor of computer science and mathematics at Imperial College London, was arrested based on allegations that the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran that he founded conducted espionage operations and had contact with leaders of anti-government protests. Edalat was released and returned to the United Kingdom in December 2018.

  • • On 1 December 2018 authorities reportedly arrested Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi, a research fellow and demography expert from the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, and Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, a professor of demography at the University of Tehran, accusing them of manipulating population and providing sensitive information to enemies of Iran.

Restrictions on student expression

The SAR submission lists at least eight non-violent student protesters from the University of Tehran who were last year prosecuted on charges including anti-state propaganda, collusion against national security and disturbing public order, and sentenced to imprisonment for up to seven years.

In December 2017 Iranian authorities acknowledged banning 27 students from graduate programmes for alleged political expression. This was reportedly part of a practice of identifying student activists by marking their names with a star in official documents, and preventing many of them from continuing at university.

“Students who receive one star may enter university after signing a document pledging not to engage in any political or social activism. Students receiving two stars are suspended and may be interrogated by the intelligence ministry. Students receiving three stars are subject to a lifetime ban from higher education,” says the submission.

“Authorities have reportedly acknowledged that 151 PhD students and 398 masters students had been ‘starred’, but were allowed to move forward in their educational programmes after signing pledges to refrain from political activity.” Notwithstanding the official statistics, says SAR, “independent rights organisations allege that as many as 150 to 200 students have been ‘starred’ and banned from academic activity”.