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Attacks on Yemeni Higher Education Highlighted in ‘Free to Think’ Report

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In the Arab region and elsewhere around the world, faculty members, students, and campuses have been the targets of numerous attacks over the past year—often for criticizing official policies—according to a new report.

“Free to Think 2020” documents 341 attacks on higher education in 58 countries between September 1, 2019 and August 31, 2020. This is the latest edition of a report put out yearly since 2015 by Scholars at Risk, an international academic network dedicated to protecting threatened scholars and students.

This year’s report finds that the Covid-19 pandemic has played a key role in a number of attacks, imprisonments, and firings.

“We see scientists threatened for research that contradicts messages that states want to project,” said SAR’s Executive Director, Robert Quinn, in a statement.  “We see growing pressures on scholars who comment on government response efforts. And we see authorities use the pandemic as a cover to stifle and punish free inquiry and expression generally.”

Among the abuses documented in the report are violent attacks on campuses in Afghanistan, India, and Yemen; wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions of scholars; restrictions on academic travel used most prominently by authorities in Israel, Turkey, and the United States; sustained pressures on student expression in Colombia, India, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and South Africa; and legislative and administrative threats to university autonomy, in Brazil, Ghana, Poland, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and other countries.

Killings and Disappearances

The report documented 124 cases of killings, violence and disappearances of faculty members, students and other academics. (See a related article: “A New Academic Freedom Report Describes Worldwide Attacks on Higher Education.”)

In Iraq, for example, two scholars were killed and a third injured in attacks apparently related to their political views during the past year.

In Egypt, the government arrested four scholars from Cairo University in September 2019 as part of a crackdown on government critics. This past March the government arrested four academics and activists for protesting for the release of prisoners, who, the protesters said, are at a high risk of catching Covid-19.

In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates scholars were imprisoned by authorities.

A 2019 airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on this building at Dhamar Community College, south of the capital Sana'a, killed at least 96 people, including seven children, according to the Mwatana Center for Human Rights, in Yemen. The building had been converted into a prison.
A 2019 airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on this building at Dhamar Community College, south of the capital Sana’a, killed at least 96 people, including seven children, according to the Mwatana Center for Human Rights, in Yemen. The building had been converted into a prison.

Students were arrested in several countries. In October 2019 authorities arrested 13 students in Algeria for demonstrating non-violently in favor of political reform. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Israeli authorities carried out a number of raids and arrested student activists.

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This year’s report pays particular attention to Yemen, where a civil war raging since 2015 has turned the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. Five years of war has devastated higher education in Yemen, the report says. Students, scholars, and other university personnel have been killed and injured. Universities, libraries, cultural sites, and other infrastructure have been destroyed or severely damaged. A sense of insecurity impedes access to higher education and academic activity in many parts of the country.

Airstrikes on Universities

Airstrikes, predominantly carried out by the Saudi-led coalition playing a role in Yemen’s civil war, have caused extensive damage to educational institutions. The report cites the Yemen Data Project, which monitors armed conflict in the country. The project found that universities, colleges, and other post-secondary education institutions were the targets of at least 133 airstrikes since March 2015.  These included Aden University, Sana’a University, and Taiz University. One of the deadliest airstrikes was carried out on August 31, 2019 against Dhamar Community College, in the city of Dhamar south of Sana’a, where the opposition Houthi forces had repurposed at least one building of the college into a prison for prisoners of war. The attack left more than 100 people dead.

“Thousands of students have been affected by these attacks and prevented from receiving their education,” says Noria Alhussini, a researcher with Mwatana for Human Rights, a Sana’a-based organization, in an interview with Al-Fanar Media.

“Thousands of students have been affected by these attacks and prevented from receiving their education.”

Noria Alhussini  
A researcher with Mwatana for Human Rights

Ali Bureihi, dean of the information faculty at Sana’a University, added in another interview that the instability, lack of salaries, deterioration of health care and of life in general has led to the deaths of academics, and the exodus of many more from Yemen.

“In sum, the educational situation in Yemen threatens a disaster,” the dean said, and could lead to Yemeni universities no longer being recognized as valid academic institutions by partners in other countries.

On some campuses, Houthi forces have taken control of operations and interfered in teaching and other academic activities. In late November 2019, Houthi forces reportedly detained a number of students at Sana’a University for forming an “opposition bloc.”

On January 1, 2020, Houthi forces stormed a law class at the University of Ibb and abducted an unspecified number of students who were apparently suspected of being critical of them.

In these incidents pro-Houthi students apparently monitored and reported on their classmates to the Houthis.

In January of this year, Houthi militants arrested Hamid Aqlan, president of University of Science and Technology, a private, Sana’a-based institution, along with one of his administrative colleagues. The Houthis immediately announced the appointment of a new president, Adel Al-Mutawakkil.

Moreover, faculty members at many institutions have received little or no salary for months or even years. According to the report, “Yemen risks losing a generation of scholars, research, and the societal progress that accompanies quality higher education.”

Scholars at Risk has documented over seventeen hundred attacks on higher education in over one hundred countries since 2011. The group has appealed for broad support to stop such assaults.

In a statement, Clare Robinson, the organization’s advocacy director said, “Governments, higher education institutions, and civil society must act now by demanding and ensuring accountability, improving legal protections for academic freedom, and supporting scholars, students, and other university personnel under attack.”


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