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(Tunis) – The Tunisian authorities should protect individual and academic freedoms from acts of violence and other threats by religiously motivated groups acting on university campuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Both the university authorities and the state security forces will need to cooperate to protect the rights to security and education of students and faculty.

One university suspended classes on December 6, 2011, because of security concerns. Demonstrators have caused disruptions on the campuses of at least four universities since October, demanding imposition of their own interpretation of Islam in the curriculum and in campus life and dress. They have interrupted classes, prevented students from taking exams, confined deans in their offices, and intimidated women professors.

“Tunisian authorities should of course protect the right to protest peacefully but should show zero tolerance when groups of protesters disrupt campus learning with threats of violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The timing and location of some of these protests suggest that they were planned to cause maximum disruption by interfering with exams, thus depriving thousands of students of their rights.”

The Higher Education Ministry, the supervisory authority for universities in Tunisia, has yet to take decisive action to deter disruptions of academic life and acts of aggression and intimidation by fundamentalist groups on campus.

Security forces have made no arrests in these incidents, although those who attacked or threatened the staff of public universities appear to have violated the law. Under article 116 of the penal code, it is a criminal offense for “anyone who uses or threatens to use violence on civil servants in order to force them to perform, or to prevent them from performing, their official duties.”

The most sustained protests have occurred at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of Manouba, a city near Tunis, the capital. Other incidents took place at the business school of the University of Manouba, the School of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Kairouan, and the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis.

The principles of university autonomy and non-intervention on campus should not be used by the government as an excuse to relinquish its obligation to ensure security of students and professors, to deter outsiders from disrupting academic activities, and to see to it that demonstrations do not disproportionately impair the rights of others, Human Rights Watch said.

The Tunisian government should ensure swift intervention of security forces whenever requested by the faculty to prevent third parties from seriously disrupting academic life, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should also put in place monitoring systems so that physical attacks and threats on schools, teachers, and students are tracked, to identify those responsible and to hold them accountable in conformity with the Tunisian penal code.

“Under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian campuses were stifled by enforced political uniformity,” Whitson said. “Tunisian students and professors didn’t help to oust Ben Ali only to see one form of repression on campus replaced by another.”

At the University of Manouba on November 28, a group that swelled to 100 people, according to witnesses, interrupted classes and prevented students from taking exams, chanting slogans demanding an end to the ban on women wearing the full-face veil (niqab) in classrooms and seeking a prayer space on campus. The faculty board had voted November 2 to ban the niqab on campus. In practice, though, niqab-wearers have since been allowed on campus and in the library but barred from classes and exams.

Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of Manouba, told Human Rights Watch that the 100 or so protesters on November 28 included both students and non-students. Kazdaghli said that he and other faculty members had been intimidated by the large group of people outside his office and that they had been afraid to leave the building.

On November 29, Kazdaghli decided to deny outsiders access to the campus. However, a group that included non-students forced their way in on November 30 and confronted Kazdaghli, shoving him. These events precipitated a strike by faculty to protest these assaults, halting classes for three days.

On December 6, protesters prevented Kazdaghli from entering his office. He later told Human Rights Watch:

At 8:35 a.m., I parked my car in the campus lot and headed toward my office. I heard Quranic verses being recited through a loudspeaker. When I got close to my building the recitation of the Quran stopped, and the group standing in front of the administration office shut the doors to the building. Wissem Othman, who is one of their leaders but who is not a student of the university, took the microphone and shouted, “He must not enter the building.”

I was surprised because I had gotten used to entering and leaving my office while the protesters were there. On this day, however, they formed a human chain. I tried to push my way past them and open the door. Some faculty workers and a professor from the French department joined me. But protesters on the other side of the door pushed back hard, knocking over the professor, who then fainted. After this incident, the professors and the staff of the administration closed their offices and we convened a meeting off-campus, at which we decided to close the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanitiesuntil further notice and to call for police intervention. So far the police have not come on campus and the situation is stalled.

The school has remained shut since December 6. On December 8, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited the campus and saw no uniformed security forces outside or inside the campus. About 20 protesters were camped in the administration building.

On October 8, at the School of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, a city 140 kilometers southeast of Tunis, a crowd confronted the secretary-general of the faculty, Mohamed Naji Mtir, after the administration prevented a female student wearing a niqab from registering for courses.

“They besieged me as I drove onto the campus, pounding on my car,” Mtir told Human Rights Watch. “As I parked, some of them started kicking and hitting me and tore my clothes before workers intervened and escorted me to safety. Most of the assailants were not our students.”

On November 23, Asma Saidan Pacha, assistant professor at the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in the city of Kairouan, was administering an exam that contained a reproduction of the Michelangelo fresco from the Sistine Chapel depicting the creation of Adam. A group of her students joined by others burst into the classroom, shouting that paintings such as this one that personify God are un-Islamic. They followed her to the faculty lounge, insulted her, and told her to recite the “Shahada,” the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God and in Muhammad as his prophet.

“They asked me to declare publicly my repentance for having insulted Islam,” Pacha told Human Rights Watch. “It was like standing in front of an inquisition tribunal. After two hours, they let me go when a student of mine promised to submit all my courses to their oversight.”

A professor of Islamic studies at the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis who asked to remain unnamed was also subjected to intimidation. One day in mid-October, when she went to teach in her class, she found her classroom empty. She saw students, including some of hers, gathered in the courtyard. They were shouting that they did not want a secular professor teaching them Islamic Beliefs (‘Akida).

Days later students entered her class and told her students to leave the room, saying, “She is free to decide if she wishes to wear the hijab or not, but if she is going to teach, she must wear it.” Posters appeared on campus walls insulting her and calling her “an infidel,” the professor told Human Rights Watch. After the intimidation continued for several weeks, she requested a transfer to another university.

“I have been teaching at my university for several years, but the atmosphere of pressure and harassment has become unbearable,” she said.

On October 31, a group of students interrupted a class being taught by Rafika Ben Guirat, a professor at the business school at the University of Manouba, because they objected to her style of dress.

“After I finished my first class, I crossed the courtyard, where I heard students whistling and shouting,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I didn’t realize I was the subject of their wrath until I reached my next class and saw the dismay on my students’ faces. They advised me to cancel the class because it would not be safe for me to stay. However, I continued for 45 minutes until the shouting from outside the class got to be too much. My students gathered and escorted me from the classroom through a back door. A group of the protesters followed us but we were able to reach the administration offices and close the doors behind us.

“My students told me they heard comments from those shouting that I should wear more ’respectful’ clothes,” she said. “I always felt safe and respected in the university. Now I feel my dignity and safety have been compromised because of my clothing.”

The principle of academic freedom derives from the internationally recognized right to education as enshrined in article 13 of the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)emphasized that “academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor…”

Institutional autonomy also forms a prerequisite for the exercise of professors’ and students’ individual rights. CESCR defines autonomy as “that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision-making by institutions of higher education in relation to their academic work, standards, management and related activities.”

Educational institutions should be able to make their own rules and administer themselves. In addition, the Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1997 provides that states are under an obligation to protect higher education institutions from threats to their autonomy coming from any source.

While the state has the obligation to ensure the right to peaceful assembly, including of professors and students, and their freedom to peacefully organize and participate in campus protests or other gatherings, it also has the responsibility to secure the safety of students and professors and to ensure that demonstrations do not disproportionately interfere with their right to education and other rights.

After the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the Tunisian government removed police from university campuses. Currently, the police may intervene only if the dean makes an explicit request to the security forces.

In addition, the deans of the faculties have the primary responsibility to report attacks on academic freedoms to the relevant authorities and request their intervention when violence is threatened or perpetrated, or when protests paralyze academic life. 

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