37 university leaders call on Iran to release Djalali

Rectors, vice-chancellors and presidents of 37 universities and university colleges in Sweden have published an open letter demanding that the Iranian authorities release Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish specialist in disaster medicine who was sentenced to death in October 2017.

Djalali, based at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and a visiting professor at Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel, was arrested while visiting Iran in April 2016.

Iran accused him of ‘spying for Israel’ and he has remained behind bars at Tehran’s Evin Prison since his death sentence, as reported by University World News.

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

“As rectors, vice-chancellors and presidents of Swedish universities and university colleges, it is part of our tasks to safeguard academic freedom,” the university leaders said in their statement on 29 June.

“We are deeply concerned in the case of Ahmadreza Djalali. The fact that he was arrested, detained and sentenced to death without the consent of a fair trial is an attack not only on him and his family – but also an unacceptable attack on academic freedom, human rights and the rule of law.”

The university leaders said that Djalali has devoted large parts of his adult life to research, knowledge development and knowledge sharing and that at the time of his arrest he was in Iran to give lectures in his field of research on disaster medicine.

“It is our duty to react and act when we see how regimes strike against the very basic academic principles. For us, it is obvious to demand the immediate release of Ahmadreza Djalali. For this demand to lead to concrete results, the world must send clear signals to the Iranian regime,” the university leaders said.

They urged academic colleagues, relevant international and intergovernmental organisations, countries, parliaments and governments that stand for values such as democracy, human rights and academic freedom, and to all other actors involved in justice and international solidarity to use all available channels to communicate directly with the Iranian authorities about the Djalali case and to use all available means to increase pressure on Iran to respect human rights and the rule of law.

“It is time for the global community, and the joint academy, to speak out and firmly dissociate themselves from Iran’s repeated and blatant violations of fundamental human rights,” they said.

“If we do it together, powerfully and clearly, it will yield results. It is time for Ahmadreza Djalali to be released.”

Massive support worldwide

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen who is president of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm where Djalali is a staff member, told University World News: “I do hope the Iranian authorities will heed this appeal and take note of the massive support for Dr Djalali not only in Sweden but the world over. Dr Djalali must be released and allowed to rejoin his family in Sweden and resume his work on disaster medicine.

“Let us call this for what it is: the ordeal of Ahmadreza Djalali is a case of hostage taking and extortion. Dr Djalali should have been treated as a resource for Iran and for the world at large. Not so: he was imprisoned, prosecuted and convicted on charges for which there is not even a shred of evidence.”

Ottersen said the sad case of Djalali “puts us all to the test – as fellow citizens, as fellow academics, as part of the global community. We must stand united against the death penalty, but also against hostage taking and extortion.”

He said a clear message needed to be sent to the Iranian authorities about what the consequences would be should they choose to carry out the death sentence.

“Sweden, Europe and the world will not forget. It will not be back to business as usual. If the sentence is carried out, it is inevitable that this will have a chilling effect on academic cooperation and on cooperation at large. And it will be seen as one of the most brutal and blatant attacks on academic freedom and human rights in modern time.”

Talks on Djalali’s case are taking place via diplomatic channels. Iranian government representatives who engage in such talks should not be allowed to see “even a flicker of weakness” in the eyes of Swedish or European delegates, he added.

“They should see resolve, and a steadfastness that is commensurate with the seriousness of the case at hand. And they should be reminded in no uncertain terms that carrying out the sentence will have effects for generations to come.”

Intensified international pressure

The Swedish university leaders’ appeal adds to a long list of interventions in the case of Djalali and several other scholars held in prison in Iran – from Scholars at Risk, the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), the Flemish Interuniversity Council, UNICA (Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe), plus an initiative by 121 Nobel laureates, and the 13 April 2022 article in Nature: “Global science must stand up for Iran’s imprisoned scholars.”