Academics targeted by authoritarian regimes ‘to quell dissent’

Increased persecution of scholars in Iran and Afghanistan led to more than 400 attacks being perpetrated against academia globally, says Scholars at Risk report

October 31, 2023
Woman waves Iranian flag

University staff and students across the world are facing “pervasive and frequent attacks on their academic freedom”, according to a new report that highlights targeted efforts by authoritarian regimes to “quell dissent and restrict free discourse”.

In the 12 months to July 2023, 409 separate attacks against the higher education community were made in 66 countries, according to the Scholars at Risk’s Free to Think 2023 report, published on 31 October.

About 40 per cent of the attacks – 161 in total – were violent and included assassination attempts, kidnappings, campus shootings and terrorist attacks.

A high number of the attacks took places in Afghanistan, where multiple killings, disappearances and imprisonments were registered in the past year-long period, including a terrorist attack on Kaaj Educational Centre in Kabul in September 2022, which left 53 people dead and 110 injured.

In Iran, numerous scholars have lost their positions, while students have faced violence after taking part in peaceful protests on campus, the report adds.

In Russia, China and Turkey, government crackdowns on dissent have “reinforced cultures of fear and self-censorship”, adds the report, which also highlights how student protests were broken up in India and Sri Lanka.

“Imprisonments and prosecutions of scholars and students are wrongful when intended to punish, deter or impede non-violent academic activity or the exercise of other protected rights, including freedoms of expression, association or assembly,” states the report, which adds that “such prosecutions are typically brought under laws aimed at restricting critical inquiry and expression”.

“These include opaque and overbroad laws on blasphemy, lèse-majesté, civil and criminal defamation, sedition, espionage, national security and terrorism that make illegal the mere expression of opinions or ideas on certain topics, without any link to violent or otherwise criminal acts or intentions whatsoever.”

In many cases, legal proceedings and prosecutions of scholars and students involve forced confessions, fabricated evidence and lengthy prison sentences, the report adds.

“Trials may be repeatedly delayed or held in secret or closed-door proceedings, denying access to media and family,” it says.

“Detained or imprisoned scholars and students may also be held in overcrowded cells or solitary confinement; denied access to appropriate medical care, family or legal counsel; and subjected to lengthy interrogations, abuse and torture.”

Robert Quinn, executive director at the New York-based charity, said the attacks were intended to silence the global higher education sector.

“These attacks illustrate the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy and the shrinking space for discourse and sharing ideas. These attacks harm all of society,” said Mr Quinn.

The report also stresses that liberal democracies are not immune to attacks on higher education. In the US, lawmakers have sought to restrict teaching and research related to controversial topics including critical race theory and gender studies, and have undermined university autonomy, it claims.

“Attacks against higher education are diverse, occurring in both authoritarian and democratic societies,” said the charity’s advocacy director, Claire Robinson.

“Frequently, those responsible are not held accountable. Understanding why attacks occur and how they can be prevented is essential. This requires states, higher education institutions, civil society and the public to build awareness and implement concrete protections for the academic community.”

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