Durham lifts veil on plight of student held in Iran

Fears over health of PhD candidate lead institution to abandon discreet strategy. Simon Baker writes

August 26, 2010

A university has changed tack on a decision not to publicise the plight of a PhD student imprisoned in Iran, citing frustration over responses from the Iranian regime and fears that his health is deteriorating.

Durham University has written an open letter to the Iranian ambassador to the UK saying the institution is "deeply concerned" about Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi, who was arrested in January and is being held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Durham had followed a strategy of privately pursuing the case through correspondence with the Iranian Embassy in London, an approach it said it adopted following "sustained dialogue" with Mr Abdoh-Tabrizi's father, who works for a banned newspaper in Iran.

The strategy led to suggestions - strongly refuted by Durham - that its silence was due to links between Iran and the university's Centre for Iranian Studies, which has previously hosted a seminar sponsored by the Iranian Embassy's cultural and education section.

Anthony Forster, pro vice-chancellor for education at Durham, said the "health and well-being" of Mr Abdoh-Tabrizi, who has been accused of taking part in demonstrations in Iran, was its only concern and that it now felt it was time to raise awareness of the case.

The university is worried by reports that the health of the history student, who has been on hunger strike, is deteriorating. Also, Professor Forster said, information from the Iranian Embassy that the case would be dealt with swiftly had proved "inaccurate".

"The university's position has been to undertake a campaign of private correspondence with the Iranian Embassy in London to clarify the circumstances of Ehsan's imprisonment, the charges against him and the timescale for his case to be processed," he said.

"The university is concerned at recent developments in this case and is taking further action. We have been disappointed that the response we received from the cultural and education section of the embassy, which implied that the case would be processed swiftly, has proven to be inaccurate, and that our most recent letter seeking further clarity has not been acknowledged.

"Critically, in the past two weeks, the university has become increasingly concerned about Ehsan's well-being following reports of poor health and continued ambiguity relating to the charges that have been brought against him."

In his letter to Rasoul Movahedian, the Iranian ambassador, Professor Forster says the university will need to take further action to "escalate attention" to the case if no response is received by the end of the month.

Durham's past approach has been contrasted with that in the case of Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, a PhD student at the University of Oxford also imprisoned by the Iranian regime. Margaret MacMillan, warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, wrote to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, earlier this year calling for his release.

Professor Forster said Durham had noted the approach adopted by campaigners and other institutions handling similar cases, but added that these strategies had been "similarly unsuccessful". He said: "The university was assured by Ehsan's father on a number of occasions that its position of official but discreet engagement with the embassy was the right course of action."

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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