US offers haven for refugee scholars

June 9, 2000

An academic fired by the University of Belgrade has spoken out about his shame in an open protest against the oppressive climate in Serbia.

A letter from chemical engineer Obrad Savic was to be read by Jonathan Fanton, co-chair of the Human Rights Watch academic freedom committee, at the Chicago launch today of an initiative to offer a haven to refugee academics at United States universities.

Professor Fanton said the letter exemplified the case for the Scholars at Risk network, organised by the University of Chicago human rights programme.

"The open letter puts Professor Savic in harm's way. Wouldn't it be good if we could quickly offer him a visiting professorship for a few months?" he asked.

Professor Savic's letter read: "I am addressing this letter to you, hoping that a voice of revolt from shameful Belgrade will reach you.

"I am ashamed of addressing you from the country of terror and fear, the state where parliamentary life, media and university have been suffocated, the state where pensioners, workers and citizens are being beaten.

"I am ashamed of the state which mobilises paramilitary formations to oppress students in the university halls and classrooms. I am ashamed of the state that fears and arrests its rebellious youth, organised as the 'people's resistance' movement. I am ashamed of our democratic political opposition, which has wasted the trust of its citizens."

Serbia's university law has been a central HRW campaign, culminating in the 1998 refusal by Belgrade to grant Professor Fanton a visa when he tried to visit the country to protest at restrictions on academic freedom.

Professor Fanton said: "Courageous intellectuals are often the first targets of anti-democratic crackdowns. Some give their lives in defence of free expression, others languish in jail and some escape to work in exile against repressive regimes at home."

While there had been "noble moments" when the academic community rallied to help colleagues, a permanent network of support had been missing.

Other speakers were Yuri Orlov, a Cornell physicist imprisoned for human rights activities in the former Soviet Union who emigrated to the US in 1976; Yongyi Song, a China expert at Dickinson College who was released in January 2000 after being detained; Sergey Piontkovki, a marine biologist who faced false charges in Ukraine until fleeing in March; and Sowore Omoleye, a Nigerian student leader who fled in 1995 after alleging he was tortured for pro-democracy activities.

http://scholarsatrisk.uchicago.edu

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