Students barred from campuses as state steps up crackdown

As student protesters at several universities in Iran are being barred from their campuses and threatened with disciplinary action that includes expulsion, a human rights group has criticised the “increasing harshness” of the authorities’ response, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty and the release of detainees.

“Instead of opening space for dialogue on legitimate grievances, the authorities are responding to unprecedented protests with increasing harshness,” UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) spokesperson Jeremy Laurence said on 15 November, referring in part to the death sentence handed down to one unnamed protester and noting that at least nine other protesters have been charged with offences that potentially carry the death penalty.

The OHCHR called for the immediate release of those detained for their involvement in peaceful protests and for charges against them to be dropped. The UN agency has also called for a moratorium on the death penalty.

While there are no accurate figures for those detained since the protests began in September over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for wearing her hijab ‘too loosely’, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) estimates nearly 15,000 arrests, with the identity of 1,928 confirmed. On 9 November, it said 431 of the detainees were students.

Despite warnings from the authorities, students insist they will continue to boycott classes and demand the unconditional release of all arrested students, the prohibition of arrest warrants for the released students, the lifting of recent academic suspensions and the withdrawal of the security forces from campuses.

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), protest gatherings have been held in 137 cities and 136 universities since September.

The National Council for Resistance for Iran, reported on 15 November at least 50 universities, including the largest and oldest, were protesting and staging sit-ins up to and including the anniversary of the November 2019 uprising, providing a list of them.

The fate of many detained students and their whereabouts in many cases is unknown. Some of them have been arrested during protests while others have been abducted by security forces from campuses and university dormitories.

At the same time, students are being punished en masse by authorities if they do not attend classes.

Barred from campus

Many of those students arrested and subsequently released have been barred from re-entering university premises or student dormitories in a move described by student unions as “illegal actions” by the state authorities.

According to Iranian law, only university disciplinary committees have such authority, they argue. Student groups say the barring of students amounts to a suspension without due processes.

Such actions have angered students further. At Rasht University protests continued this week, with students chanting: “Freedom, freedom, freedom!” and “the university will be shut down if [officials] suspend one student!”

Sharif University of Technology in Tehran was among the first to bar large numbers of students from entering the campus after many students were arrested during a siege of the campus by military and security forces on 2 October.

Long queues have been seen outside the university gates because students who are barred from entering are identified via the QR code on their student cards, according to Sharif Today which covers news at Sharif University.

The entry ban at Sharif University reportedly began on 22 October with 33 students on the initial list. By mid-November it had around 80 names, Sharif Today reported.

According to information received by IranWire, at least 16 students at Babol Noshirvani University have also been banned from entering the university over the past week following clashes with security forces at that campus.

Students suspended

Other universities have announced student suspensions. More than 150 students at Iran’s Al-Zahra University have been suspended for participating in anti-government protests following a massive gathering at the women-only university on 30 October.

“More than 150 students were instructed to leave the dormitory within 72 hours," Ham-Mihan newspaper reported on 13 November, describing this as part of a crackdown on universities.

Tehran University of Arts announced on Sunday 13 November that all drama graduate students are to be suspended and will not be able to take their final exams.

On 9 November the Iranian Council of Student Unions reported that 138 students at Guilan University in northern Iran had been suspended for one semester and some 34 others for two semesters.

The union said students at Bojnord University of Medical Sciences staged a sit-in on 10 November to protest the illegal suspension of students at the university and threats of other action by the authorities.

On 12 November students at Shahid Beheshti University’s Faculty of Law held a sit-in to protest the detention of students. Students at Tehran University’s Faculty of Psychology also held a sit-in over the continued detention of Mahan Gachpazan, the secretary of the university’s trade union council.

Attempts to break class boycotts

The authorities are attempting to break class boycotts with further threats and in some cases are putting pressure on academic staff to name dissenters. Students are being told they will fail courses if they do not attend classes, according to student sources, while professors have reportedly been told they must hold classes, with some reportedly lecturing to empty halls and being asked to name students who fail to turn up.

Other actions by the authorities have served to inflame student sentiment.

Reports from several campuses, including Sharif University, Islamic Azad University North Campus in Tehran and the University of Mashhad, earlier this month indicated the authorities were inspecting students’ bags before allowing them to enter, which sparked a new wave of protests.

In a video circulating on social media, the head of Tehran University’s security, Hossein Izadiyar, is shown telling students, “If you don’t end your sit-in, I will open the door for armed forces to arrest you.” He added threateningly: “Now this issue is the [political] establishment’s redline, get up and go to your classes.”

Very few professors have openly joined the student protests, but this week 121 professors at Amirkabir University warned against any government-instigated plan to “deal harshly with students”.

In a letter dated 14 November addressed to Hassan Qadispour, the university’s president, they said repression of students would merely inflame the protests.

Any “extremist action” by university officials will “definitely make the situation worse”, they wrote.

The professors criticised the issuing of disciplinary orders for students participating in protests, arguing that such orders have intensified the confrontation between students and university administrators. They pointed to the widespread arrests of students as the cause of disruption on campuses.

A polarised situation

However, the situation is polarised, with some professors openly calling on security forces to clamp down on protesters. At the University of Science and Technology, Tehran, 267 faculty members signed a letter demanding “decisive” action against students holding protests or sit-ins.

Hundreds of alumni countered with a letter on 16 November condemning the professors and arguing that suppression of students is the result of “the silence of most of the professors” and the support of “a few professors” for the crackdown.

“The shameful statement by a number of professors, in which they implicitly supported the current security measures and asked for the start of normal activities at the university regardless of the students’ conditions, is definitely one of the most shameful events in the 90-year history of this university,” reads the letter.

In late September some 70 professors from Tehran University published an open letter to the government in the newspaper Etemad outlining the political and economic problems of the country and demanding the release of all protesters. The letters were followed by others from faculty members in other universities.

However, observers note that taking a stance has only widened the rift within universities where all leadership roles are held by those loyal to the regime.

Encieh Erfani, former assistant professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, Zanjan, was one of the few academics who resigned on 23 September – the beginning of the academic year – in protest against the government.

“I now call on my former colleagues to do the same. I would also like to see the presidents of the universities that allow oppressive forces to enter universities being banned from the international community.

“This would mean they cannot publish their work in scientific journals, travel to international conferences or spend time at institutions outside of Iran,” she wrote in an article published on 9 November.