32 deaths in hundreds of violent attacks on HE globally

During the past year Scholars at Risk (SAR) has reported 97 violent incidents involving attacks on higher education communities across 40 countries. At least 32 students, scholars, staff, campus security personnel and others died as a result of these attacks, with many more injured.

There has been a spike in reported attacks on students and scholars in China, a spate of attacks on campuses in Brazil, multiple shuttering of universities and use of force to crack down on protesting students and academics in Sudan, violent clashes between students in India and ongoing wrongful arrest and imprisonment of scholars in Turkey.

SAR’s Free to Think 2019, an annual report identifying trends related to violent attacks on higher education communities, this year analyses 324 attacks on higher education communities in 56 countries between 1 September 2018 and 31 August 2019, using data collected by SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.

“Since 2011, SAR has reported over 1,400 attacks on higher education in over 100 countries. These attacks challenge everybody’s freedom to raise difficult questions and share ideas,” says Clare Robinson, SAR’s advocacy director. “Free to Think demands urgent action from governments, higher education leaders and civil society to actively protect higher education communities and defend academic freedom.”

In the reporting period, in Yemen, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Sudan, Thailand and Ecuador, armed individuals and groups carried out violent, premeditated attacks on higher education institutions. These included the use of explosive devices and resulted in at least 16 deaths and more than 60 injured.

In Yemen on 6 October 2018, for instance, 55 students were arrested by Houthi militia near the campus of Sana’a University for taking part in an anti-poverty demonstration and were beaten and given electric shocks, while later that day the militants shut down the university and deployed tanks and armoured vehicles around campus buildings.

In the UK a bomb mailed to the University of Glasgow on 6 March 2019 for apparent political motives was spotted by university officials and detonated in a controlled explosion by police. A group claiming to be the Irish Republican Army and commonly known as the New IRA claimed responsibility.

In Afghanistan there were three major bomb attacks on campus communities, including the targeted bombing of a bus carrying university students in Kabul in June, which left two dead and 24 injured, carried out by alleged members of Islamic State; and in July a bombing at Kabul University when exams were being held killed at least eight people and injured 33.

In Sudan, in June paramilitary forces attacked students and faculty at the University of Khartoum, killing four protesters, vandalising offices and burning a university hospital.

Attacks on scholars

Globally there were numerous targeted attacks on scholars and students, often sectarian in nature.

For instance, in Brazil in October a black female student at the University of Fortaleza was raped after receiving racist threats online and in person. The perpetrator has not been identified but the attack came in the context of politically motivated attacks on racial minorities and LGBTQ community members perpetrated by supporters of then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. The victim had previously been threatened by a man claiming he would “cleanse the university” of “her people”.

In March a student killed Khalid Hameed, a professor of English at the Government Sadiq Egerton College in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, in retaliation for the professor’s role in organising a mixed-gender welcome event for students, which the student viewed as “against the teachings of Islam”.

And in Saudi Arabia in April, a student, Mujtaba al-Sweikat, was executed for participating in Arab Spring-related protests. He had been tortured and forced to make a confession for crimes related to national security, for which he was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to death in 2016, after being arrested on the way to start his undergraduate studies.

Other incidents recorded include wrongful imprisonment and prosecution of scholars and the use of lethal force by police and security personnel during protests.

Wrongful imprisonment

During the reporting period, SAR reported 70 incidents of wrongful prosecution and 87 incidents of wrongful imprisonment, with high numbers in Turkey and Sudan.

Turkish authorities continued to prosecute Academics for Peace, a group of scholars, research assistants and other academic personnel, on terrorism-related charges in retaliation for their endorsement of a January 2016 petition calling for peace in the embattled Kurdish regions of Turkey.

Meanwhile, thousands of university personnel accused of affiliations disfavoured by the Turkish state and linked to a July 2016 coup attempt remain fired, barred from civil service employment and unable to leave the country, as per a series of state of emergency decrees.

The report cites four cases of academics being arrested in Iran, including the arrest in December 2018 of demography scholars Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, from Australia’s University of Melbourne, and Dr Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, of the University of Tehran, apparently for an award-winning book they co-authored in 2009 titled The Fertility Transition in Iran, which analysed Iran’s declining fertility rate alongside socio-economic factors.

The two scholars were charged with espionage-related offences and were alleged to have created false information. In January 2019 Hosseini-Chavoshi was freed, but there is no information on Abbasi-Shavazi’s status.

Other incidents included the British researcher Matthew Hedges, who was arrested after travelling to the United Arab Emirates in April 2018 to conduct research on Emirati foreign and security policies for his PhD dissertation.

Following his arrest after being reported for “asking sensitive questions about some sensitive departments”, he was subjected to daily interrogations, threats and forced drugging. He was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison on charges of “spying” and providing “intelligence information to third parties”.

He was later freed, in November 2018, after mounting international pressure.

“Scholars and students challenge dominant discourse and systems of power through their academic work and expressive activities on and off campus,” the report says.

“State authorities retaliate against or restrict scholars’ and students’ academic work, inquiry, expression and associations through prosecutions and imprisonments, in an effort to maintain their control.”

The report says state authorities often carry out these actions under laws or on grounds related to national security, terrorism, espionage and sedition.

“As a result, scholars and students are silenced, and frequently subjected to inhumane prison conditions and judicial mistreatment.”

Their careers and well-being suffer, while higher education communities and society lose important voices that drive progress, the report says.

Restrictions on academic travel were deployed most prominently by authorities in the United States, Israel and China, SAR reported.

“Attacks on higher education communities – regardless of their location, scale or scope – hold consequences for societies everywhere,” says SAR’s Executive Director Robert Quinn. “In our increasingly interconnected world, these attacks erode an essential, global space where academics, students and the public at large can come together to understand and solve the complex problems that are affecting us all.”

The report makes a series of recommendations, starting with a call for states, higher education leaders, civil society and the public to recognise attacks on higher education as a problem and their negative consequences, and highlighting the responsibility of states to protect higher education communities from such attacks.

They urge prompt and thorough investigations of attacks and reasonable efforts to hold perpetrators to account.

And they call for all reasonable measures to be taken to ensure adequate security for everyone within higher education.