University campuses worldwide proved a sensitive barometer of free expression in 1999. Universities played a central role in shaping the quality and flow of information and ideas by providing a space for free inquiry and open expression. In part for this very reason, academics were disproportionately represented among the world's political prisoners and universities were favored targets of repression. Researchers, scholars, teachers, and students in dozens of countries continued to be harassed, censored, dismissed, imprisoned, and, in the worst cases, tortured or killed for openly expressing their views or addressing controversial questions.
In a number of countries, universities were subjected to controls reminiscent of the Cold War era. In countries such as Belarus, political controls on campus life were systemic, covering everything from the curriculum to student clubs. While the immediate effect of government surveillance and control was to curb political dissent, such measures also cast a pall over academic inquiry and stifled independent research. In Iran and Malaysia, students publicly rallied for political reform despite laws banning student political activity and expression, leading to at times violent confrontations with security forces and mass arrests of student demonstrators.
Although university admissions policies in many countries were implemented to combat entrenched societal prejudices and discrimination, universities in several countries continued openly to discriminate against women and members of politically powerless minorities. Particularly blatant examples in 1999 included the continuing exclusion of girls and women from schools in Afghanistan and institutionalized discrimination against adherents of the Baha'i faith in Iran.
Reprisals against Dissenting Academics
In many countries, politically outspoken academics were imprisoned by intolerant authorities. Because of the high profile of the targeted academics, the arrests often had a broad impact, serving as a warning to individuals throughout society that dissent and political opposition would not be tolerated. Academic inquiry suffered under such a climate of censorship.
On March 4, prominent Vietnamese geologist and writer Nguyen Thanh Giang was arrested and detained for two months. The only reported reason for the arrest was his possession of documents said to be "against the interests of the communist party." Dr. Giang, one of the country's leading scientists and a major contributor to the geological survey of Vietnam, also had been an outspoken critic of the government and is author of works such as "Human Rights, the Thousand Year Aspiration" (1996), "Elections and the National Assembly" (1997), and "Let's Discuss the Vietnamese Workers Class" (1998).
On June 10, an Ethiopian court sentenced Dr. Taye Wolde Semayet, president of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), to fifteen years in prison. Dr. Taye had been arrested more than three years earlier after the ETA had sharply criticized the government's embrace of ethnic federalism and division of the country along ethnic lines. Dr. Taye was convicted of conspiring against the state despite the fact that the evidence which formed the basis for his arrest had been extracted under torture and was withdrawn in court.
In the Congo, Professor Kambaj wa Kambaji, a lecturer in sociolinguistics at the University of Lubumbashi, was detained on July 29, reportedly for his critical analyses of the use of ethnic hate language in political discourse in the Katanga region. President Kabila is Katangese. Analysis of hate speech had been a major theme in Professor Kambaj's academic work and, at the time of the arrest, authorities also seized student essays on the subject from his home. Professor Kambaj reportedly was tortured in detention and was denied access to his doctor and family. He was still in detention at the time of writing.
In Colombia, three professors who had been actively trying to counter the endemic violence in the country were murdered by unknown gunmen in separate incidents. On May 4, anthropologist and University of Antioquia professor Hernán Henao was killed by three armed intruders who broke into a faculty meeting. Dr. Henao was the director of the Institute of Regional Studies, a university research center coordinating studies of political conflict and community development. He had been instrumental in the early 1990s in organizing scholars to work with community groups in some of the most violent districts of the city of Medellin. In September, Dario Betancourt, who had been seized by gunmen on April 30, was found dead. Betancourt, a historian, headed the social sciences department at the National University of Educational Sciences and was a well-known specialist on violence. On September 15, former presidential peace advisor Jesus Antonio Bejarano was shot to death as he prepared to teach a class at the National University in Bogota. None of the cases had been solved at the time of writing, but family members and colleagues of the victims believed that they were targeted for political reasons by either paramilitaries-which were often linked with the armed forces-or opposition guerrillas.
Censorship and Politically Motivated Dismissals
Because the great majority of universities around the world were public institutions or were dependent on public funds, governments had considerable power to influence what took place on campus and an incentive to wield that power. A wide range of governments abused their power in 1999, censoring research and publication on matters of public interest and dismissing researchers and academics based on partisan political considerations.
In Jordan, Dr. Mustafa Harmaneh was ousted as director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan after seven years of service, reportedly at the urging of the prime minister and a high ranking intelligence official. Dr. Harmaneh submitted his resignation on July 14, 1999 after being told that if he did not resign the center would be closed and its activities, including support for a number of Jordanians studying abroad, would be terminated. Under his leadership, the center had attained regional and international recognition for its research on policy issues in the Arab world and for its use of scientific opinion polling and social survey research in Jordan. Several of the center's reports generated controversial findings, including a 1999 survey showing a decline in the popularity of the government of Prime Minister Rawabdeh; a 1997 report placing unemployment levels at 27 percent, ten points higher than the official estimate at the time; and a 1998 study on public perceptions of Jordanian-Palestinian relations. Colleagues believe that this research, as well as critical comments Harmaneh made to theinternational media-at least once misrepresented in local papers as insulting the dignity of King Abdallah-contributed to pressures for his removal.
In Egypt, authorities censored a wide variety of books on social and religious themes and instructed universities to remove such works from their curricula.
In Malaysia, Professor Chandra Muzaffar was dismissed as head of the Center for Civilizational Dialogue at the University Malaya in late February. Muzaffar, a vocal supporter of embattled opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, had joined Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in founding the Social Justice Movement in December 1998, and his dismissal came amidst a general tightening of controls on campus and arrests of students who joined protests in support of Anwar. The letter of dismissal reportedly set forth two reasons for the university's unexpected decision: economic factors and a government directive calling on the university to optimize existing human resources. According to published reports, however, the center had showed considerable economic promise in its first year of operation.
Academic freedom was gravely threatened when political leaders made affirmation of loyalty to the ruling party a precondition of academic promotion and punished deviations from state ideology. Although there were improvements over the past decade in countries on both sides of the former Cold War divide, systemic political controls over the universities remained in place from Serbia to China and from Myanmar to the Sudan. Conditions in Belarus under the authoritarian leadership of President Aleksandr Lukashenka were illustrative of the far reaching effects of such controls.
A pervasive state campaign of political control of the universities had severely limited academic freedom and given rise to a climate of fear and suspicion on Belarusian campuses since Lukashenka assumed power in 1994. Government constraints on academic freedom intersected with those imposed on nongovernmental organizations, the independent media, independent lawyers, and opposition political parties. Institutionally, there was increasing centralization of academic decision making, as well as a resuscitation of institutional forms characteristic of the Soviet era. Most notable in this regard was a flat ban on political activity on campus accompanied by the emergence of the ostensibly apolitical but manifestly pro-Lukashenka Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth (BPSM) as an omnipresent feature of campus life. Formed on the initiative of the president, and with representative offices in every state university and institution of higher education, the BPSM represented a heavy-handed attempt to recruit students into the ranks of the president's supporters, to actively counter newly formed independent and opposition party youth groups, and to provide a presidential check on academic life at every level. BPSM representatives sat alongside the committees that administered oral examinations to all applicants for admission to state universities. Whereas BPSM members received privileges and discounts on campus and in stores, students who occupied prominent positions in the youth wings of opposition political organizations faced warnings, fines, imprisonment, and expulsion from their places of study because of their political activity.
As detailed in a 1999 Human Rights Watch report, students and faculty alike who peacefully exercised their legitimate right to freedom of assembly at opposition demonstrations, who joined opposition political parties, or who expressed their views freely on campus or off, were punished with warnings, reprimands, expulsion, demotion, or dismissal. In the field of history, there was a literal return to Soviet-era policies, with suppression of research into Belarusian independence movements, restrictions on the use of the Belarusian language, and pressures to present a sanitized account of historical relations with Russia.
Suppression of Campus Protest
Political turmoil inevitably found an important outlet on college campuses, particularly where other channels of expression were limited or closed. Although campus unrest at times was instigated by student groups who engaged in unilateral acts of violence that could not be condoned, the evidence in 1999 again demonstrated that a far more common source of the violence was government use of armed force and coercion to suppress student or faculty dissent.
In Indonesia, although the climate for free expression had improved substantially as a result of the 1998 student-led ouster of President Soeharto, security forces continued to respond with at times excessive and lethal force to student demonstrations. On September 23, three protesters and one policeman were killed in Jakarta following a clash between student-led demonstrators and security forces. In Serbia, students and faculty members once again played a leading role in protests demanding political reform and were among dozens of demonstrators injured during violent police crackdowns on rallies in Belgrade.
The most egregious case of suppression of campus protest in 1999, however, occurred in Iran. Political life there was increasingly volatile in 1999 and that volatility was directly reflected on campus. In July, the tensions erupted into violence at Tehran University shortly after the closure of Salam, one of the most popular pro-reform Iranian newspapers. The closure triggered a peaceful protest by students at Tehran University on July 8. During the early hours of July 9, members of an unidentified militia force entered the university dormitories, ransacked rooms, and attacked sleeping students, throwing some out of windows and taking others away to unknown locations. According to the witnesses, at least four students were killed in the assault on the dormitory, three hundred were wounded, and four hundred were taken into detention.
The next day, students took to the streets to protest the assault on the dormitories, to demand an inquiry, and to call for the release of their colleagues from detention. The demonstration was broken up by hard-line enforcers associated with conservative leaders within the government, the Ansar-e Hezbollahi (Partisans of the Party of God), wielding clubs and chains while members of the security forces stood by or joined in the assault on the demonstrators.
International human rights standards forbid discrimination in education. The importance of the principle was reflected in the fact that one of the first instruments to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention against Discrimination in Education, was adopted by UNESCO in 1960, several years before the adoption of the major human rights treaties. The 1960 convention bans all forms of discrimination which have "the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in education."
The most blatant discriminatory barriers to education were present in Afghanistan, where girls and women continued to be formally barred from all educational institutions. Although in 1999 some home schooling of girls was tolerated by Taliban authorities and the ministry of religion indicated it would provide some education for girls in segregated settings, girls were still formally banned from the school system and women were kept out of institutions of higher education. Some Afghani women were able to attend classes in the border city of Peshawar, Pakistan.
In sharp contrast to Afghanistan, where women could not go outside their homes without full body and head coverings, in Turkey and Uzbekistan it was women wearing the full veil who were the object of restrictions. In Turkey, regulations barring such dress on government premises, including state university campuses, were made more restrictive in 1999 and applied more widely. In Uzbekistan, the government policy on religious attire was made explicit when parliament in 1998 enacted a law on freedom of conscience that expressly forbade "ritual dress" in public. This law was deemed to provide the legal justification for a series of dismissals of male students wearing beards and female students wearing the veil, part of a larger campaign against "orthodox" Islam, viewed as a source of political competition for the present government.
In Iran, adherents of the Baha'i faith, viewed as heretics by the clerical establishment, have continued to be effectively banned from teaching or studying at colleges and universities. Members of the religion have also been barred from public employment, including teaching positions at public schools. On April 19, the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Isfahan sentenced four Baha'i teachers to prison terms ranging from three to ten years, ruling that their participation in teaching religion to other Baha'is constituted crimes against national security. According to Baha'i representatives outside of Iran, the four were Sina Hakiman (ten years imprisonment), Farzad Khajeh Sharifabadi (seven years), Habibullah Ferdosian Najafabadi (seven years), and Ziaullah Mirzapanah (three years). All four taught for the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE, also known as the Baha'i Open University), which operated out of the homes of members of the faith. The four were among thirty-six Baha'is who were arrested in late September and early October 1998 in a concerted government crackdown against Baha'i education in fourteen cities. Authorities reportedly raided over 500 homes, which served as classrooms for the institute, seizing files, equipment, and other property used by the BIHE. The other thirty-two people arrested were released.
Discrimination against Baha'i teachers and students was deliberate. The constitution of the Islamic Republic did not include Baha'ism among its list of recognized religions, and Baha'i assemblies were officially outlawed in 1983, making participation in any Baha'i activity a basis for possible criminal prosecution. An Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council memorandum on "the Baha'i question," dated February 25, 1991, stated with reference to attendance at universities: "They should be expelled from the universities, either at the time of the admission procedure or during their studies, as soon as it becomes apparent that they are Baha'is." The Iranian deputy minister of education in December 1995 told Abdelfattah Amor, U.N. special rapporteur on the question of religious intolerance, that Baha'is were free to enter institutions of higher education as long as they did not "flaunt their beliefs." Thus even the government's defense of its policies provided further evidence that practicing Baha'is continued to be denied equal access to higher education.
Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports:
As Fragile as a Crystal Glass: Press Freedom in Iran, 10/99
Uzbekistan; Class Dismissed: Discriminatory Expulsions of Muslim Students, 10/99
Spare the Child: Corporal Punishment in Kenyan Schools, 9/99
Republic of Belarus; Violations of Academic Freedom, 7/99
The Internet in the Middle East and North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship,
Cuba's Repressive Machinery: Human Rights Forty Years After the Revolution, 6/99
Deepening Authoritarianism in Serbia: The Purge of the Universities, 1/99