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A New Academic Freedom Report Describes Worldwide Attacks on Higher Education

A new report published today summarizes attacks on higher education around the world in the past year. It highlights Sudan, where the government, in an attempt to silence dissent, has closed universities and, in a long string of violent incidents, has brutalized and imprisoned students and professors with the intent of quashing protest.

In a separate interview with Al-Fanar Media, one academic leader in Sudan suggested the situation there is now improving.

The report, titled “Free to Think 2019,” was produced by the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project of the Scholars at Risk Network, a nonprofit organization based at New York University. The report describes 324 attacks that occurred in 56 countries between September 1, 2018, and August 31, 2019. Besides Sudan, Scholars at Risk reported on violent attacks on higher education in Afghanistan, Ecuador, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Yemen, and attacks on individual scholars and students in Brazil, India and Pakistan.

Daniel Munier of Scholars at Risk said that the number of incidents has risen every year since the first “Free to Think” report was published in 2015. “The numbers go up every year mainly because our ability to get information has improved,” he said. “We have increased our network of informants, but we fully acknowledge that what we are able to report is probably the tip of the iceberg.”

Two Phases of Oppression

In Sudan, universities have been at the heart of the movement that led to the resignation of the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, in April. In February, al-Bashir’s government closed the country’s universities in an attempt to prevent protesters from organizing on campuses. (See a related article, “Sudan Shutters All Its Universities.”) Security forces working under al-Bashir and, in the wake of his resignation, the Rapid Support Forces working under the Transitional Military Council, repeatedly attacked students and professors and destroyed university property.

The Rapid Support Forces, which grew out of the janjaweed militia known for its brutality in southern Sudan, engaged in some of the most brutal attacks on higher education. After University of Khartoum staff members started a civil disobedience movement to protest the deaths of 100 peaceful protesters, the Rapid Support Forces engaged in what appeared to be a retaliatory attack. In June, the Scholars at Risk report states, paramilitary forces attacked students and faculty members at the University of Khartoum, killing four people, vandalizing offices, and burning the university hospital.

The report detailed numerous other attacks by security forces on students and professors that involved tear gas, live ammunition, electric-shock batons and raids on student housing.

Commenting on the events described in the report, Nashwa Issa, an associate professor of physics at Al-Neelain University in Khartoum, said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media that “during the period of the revolution, there was a great danger to all teachers involved in the political movement.”

Sudanese universities were scheduled to open on October 1, but few did so immediately. (See a related article, “Sudan’s Academic Year Begins—But Only for a Few Universities.”)

Sara Abdelgalil, president of the Sudanese Doctors Union, said in an interview that she saw the developments in Sudan in recent months positively. She noted that Intisar el-Zein Soughayroun, formerly a professor of archaeology at the University of Khartoum, was appointed minister of higher education by the new transitional government. And in September, the ministry of higher education replaced the political appointees that had been serving as university administrators during the rule of the Bashir government

“During the period of the revolution, there was a great danger to all teachers involved in the political movement.”

-Nashwa Issa
An associate professor of physics at Al-Neelain University in Khartoum

“Previously, university presidents were appointed by the government, even if they had no academic competence,” Abdelgalil said. “They were linked to the national intelligence service and jihadi groups. It had a suffocating effect. Now universities are open and things are relatively stable.”

“We never thought we would overcome this, but we did,” she said.

Solidifying Academic-Freedom Protections

Scholars at Risk would like to see additional efforts to make sure Sudanese government and military authorities uphold their international legal obligations “to respect the right to peaceful expression, assembly, and associations by refraining from the use of force, wrongful detentions and prosecutions.”

In addition, the organization urged Sudanese authorities “to secure the release of scholars, students, and others wrongfully detained for peaceful expression or associations.”

Nuha al-Zein Mohammed, a professor at Al-Neelain University’s Faculty of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and a spokeswoman for the Professors’ Association of Sudanese Universities, Colleges and Higher Institutions, told Al-Fanar Media that on March 12 the association sent a petition to the United Nations asking it to take action to end the violence against university professors and students.

Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old student of architecture and engineering at Sudanese International University in Khartoum, became the symbol of the revolution in Sudan in which dictator Omar al-Bashir was overthrown (Photo: CC by 2.0/Street Art Shoreditch).
Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old student of architecture and engineering at Sudanese International University in Khartoum, became the symbol of the revolution in Sudan in which dictator Omar al-Bashir was overthrown (Photo: CC by 2.0/Street Art Shoreditch).

Following are other incidents in the Middle East and North Africa that the Scholars at Risk report highlighted:

  • In Yemen, on October 6, 2018, members of the Houthi militia attacked and arrested 55 students near the campus of the University of Sana’a for taking part in a demonstration demanding a response to poverty and diminishing living standards. The militia, which controlled the capital, Sana’a, at the time of the incident, subjected students to violence, including beatings and electric shocks, before releasing them on the condition that they refrain from future protests. Later, the Houthis reportedly shut down the University of Sana’a, and deployed tanks and armed vehicles around campus buildings.
  • In Saudi Arabia, on April 23, authorities executed Mujtaba al-Sweikat, a Saudi citizen, for participating in Arab Spring-related protests. Al-Sweikat was initially arrested in August 2012 at an airport in Dammam as he was preparing to travel to begin undergraduate studies at Western Michigan University in the United States. Following his arrest, he was tortured and forced to confess to various national security-related crimes for which he was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to death in 2016.
  • Also in Saudi Arabia, on March 28, authorities arrested Anas al-Mazrouee, a law professor at King Saud University, in retaliation for public comments on human rights in the country.
  • In Algeria, police responded with excessive force to student protests over the tenure of then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the confirmation of his successor and interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah. During a weekly student protest held in Algiers to denounce President Bensalah, police fired water cannons and tear gas at students who were protesting and chanting “Out with Bensalah! Out with the system.” Similar acts of police violence were reported on April 17 when officers raided a meeting, and on June 2, during another weekly demonstration.
  • In the West Bank, Israel has restricted the ability of international scholars to enter or remain in the West Bank, in many cases despite their having taught at universities in the West bank for years or even decades. (See a related article, “Palestinian Universities Say Israeli Restrictions Force Foreign Professors Out.”)
  • In the United States, on April 11, authorities denied entry to Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and leader of the Boycott Disinvestment and Sanctions movement.
  • In Turkey, government attacks on higher education have continued for the fourth consecutive year. State authorities have used prosecutions, arrests, and bans on public employment and foreign travel, among other actions, against thousands of academics who were accused of disloyalty, treason, or terrorism for signing a petition critical of state actions or being associated with individuals or groups out of favor with the government.
  • A list of academics in the report who have been imprisoned for peaceful protest includes scholars from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and South Sudan.

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