The high price academics pay for their freedom

June 1, 2001

A new pressure group, Near, aims to publicise human rights abuses against students and staff, says John Akker.

Detention, torture and death affect a significant number of academics and students worldwide. Breaches of human rights by national governments are becoming commonplace.

Universities and colleges are often in the front line when a human rights crisis occurs; academics and students take a leading role in human rights movements, and are the first to suffer repression. Military rulers and totalitarian regimes close universities and colleges to stop the free expression of ideas. This is why the situation facing academics and students, replicated in the schools and colleges, needs far wider dissemination.

Two senior academics have recently been arrested in Ethiopia for lecturing on human rights and academic freedom. Mesfin Wolde-Mariam and Berhanu Nega are both prominent in Ethiopian public life. The first is founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council while Dr Nega is a distinguished economist and a former president of the Ethiopian Economic Association. There are serious concerns for both since torture is often used by the state. Wolde-Mariam is over 70. Both are being held without access to their lawyers.

The situation in Ethiopia is grim. The official launch meeting in Paris this month of the Network for Education and Academic Rights (Near), a Unesco initiative, will hear directly from the general secretary of the Association for Ethiopian Teachers in Exile about the strife that has led to the flight of hundreds of university lecturers and scores of others being jailed since 1993. One senior medical academic escaped last year with six bullets in his body and had emergency treatment in the United Kingdom. The London-based Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, with close links to Near, is deciding how to help him now he is recovered.

In recent months more than 50 protesters, virtually all students, have been killed. The BBC, Reuters and the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network reported that more than 3,000 students at Addis Ababa University boycotted lectures to seek the right to have student council representatives nominated by students rather than university officials. The same sources reported that hundreds of police armed with rifles and batons invaded the campus and violently beat and shot students who were holding a peaceful demonstration. Fleeing students were pursued and again beaten and then shot.

Near has made urgent representations to the Foreign Office, Unesco and the Swedish government (current holders of the European Union presidency) and has been in touch with the British ambassador in Addis Ababa.

Human Rights Watch has also briefed the State Department in Washington. Other examples of abuses to academic rights have been occurring in the Middle East. Saad Idden Ibrahim, a professor and director of the Ibn Khaldum Centre for Democracy, who holds US and Egyptian citizenship, has been accused of spying and accepting funds from abroad to make a film deriding the Egyptian government. During his detention it has become clear from BBC sources that the centre had uncovered irregularities in the parliamentary elections held in 1995.

Last July, Moncef Marzouki, a professor of medicine at Sousse University in Tunisia, was arbitrarily dismissed and banned from leaving the country. A prominent human rights campaigner, he was, according to Amnesty International, later sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment after giving a paper that condemned human rights and public liberties abuses in Tunisia.

Near will also be dealing with occurrences in Europe and the UK, such as the Palestinian lecturer detained on re-entry into Israel after attending a health seminar in Oxford where he was, according to newspaper sources, filmed by a retired Israeli military doctor telling a seminar on medical research of the difficulties faced by a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus.

In China three academics have been detained. One has been held incommunicado since autumn, accused of spying for foreign intelligence agencies. The academic committee of Human Rights Watch joined with the American Sociological Association and the New York Academy of Sciences in calling on China's president to follow internationally recognised standards of due process in dealing with the academic's alleged offences.

Near will aid the global transfer of information. It will inform those who are able to take action with governments, international agencies and other transnational authorities, as well as individual protesters. We live in the new communication age that is having an impact far beyond what any of us expected. So watch out for Near.

John Akker is executive director, Near

Near will be online later this month at http:///

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