Al-Azhar University students walk past riot police during a protest conducted by a pro-Muslim Brotherhood student movement in Nasr City district on October 12, 2014.

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should release more than 110 university students arrested since the start of the school year on October 11, 2014. The arrests were apparently aimed at preventing a revival of campus protests that have erupted repeatedly since the overthrow of the former president, Mohamed Morsy, in July 2013. The arrests and subsequent activities appear to be solely directed at the students’ peaceful exercise of the right to free assembly.

Security forces arrested at least 71 students in 15 governorates on October 11, according to the Students for Freedom Observatory, an activist group formed this year to track worsening restrictions on campus political activities. The group said many students were seized from their homes in pre-dawn raids that involved uniformed police, plainclothes officers, and heavily-armed special forces units. Police arrested another 44 on October 12 after protests erupted at universities across the country, and a further 17 on October 13. Authorities have released 14 students, the observatory said, but ordered many others detained for 15 days pending investigation. One institution, Monofeya University, ordered five students suspended for organizing protests, the Observatory said.

“This mass arrest of students is a pre-emptive strike on free speech and free assembly,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Universities should be safe zones for the exchange of ideas, including political debates.”

Most of those arrested apparently had participated in protests calling for academic freedom and the release of previously detained students, as well as expressing opposition to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former defense minister who removed Morsy and was elected president in June.

In the 2013-2014 academic year following Morsy’s ouster, at least 14 students died in protest-related violence, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. Authorities delayed this academic year to mid-October to prepare for demonstrations. In June, al-Sisi issued a presidential decree that allows him to directly appoint university and faculty deans. Following a 2011 change made by Egypt’s post-revolutionary military rulers, university faculty had elected their own leadership. University deans can now dismiss faculty members for “crimes that disturb the educational process.” Cairo University, the country’s preeminent secular higher education institution, has banned all political activity. The government has hired the private security firm Falcon to guard entrances at 12 universities.

Saturday’s campaign of arrests appeared to unfold the same way across Egypt.

Police arrived at the home of Mustafa Tarek, 21, at around 2:30 a.m. on October 11, his brother, Mohamed, told Human Rights Watch. Tarek, a recent graduate in engineering from Mansoura University, had helped organize a boycott of the university’s final exams this year to protest the beating of students by campus security guards. The university was forced to reschedule the exams, his brother said.

Around two dozen uniformed and plainclothes police entered the family apartment, located near the university, and refused to show Tarek’s father a warrant when he asked for one, Mohamed said. When Mohamed objected to the police entering Tarek’s bedroom, where Mohamed’s four-year-old son was also sleeping, police punched him and his father, Mohamed said. After overturning furniture and searching drawers, the police took Tarek from the apartment. When Mohamed asked where they were taking him, the police told him that it was none of his business. Authorities questioned Tarek about whether he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or organized protests and ordered him detained for 15 days, Mohamed said.

Police took Islam Abdullah, 21, from his family’s home in the Shehadiyya district of Damietta at around 1:30 a.m. on October 11, according to his father, Gamal. Around 10 to 15 policemen wearing uniforms and plainclothes, some armed with assault rifles, woke the family and took Abdullah to the street, where two microbuses were waiting, the father said.

Abdullah, a fourth-year commerce student at Damietta University, is student union deputy president. His father said he did not know whether his son had participated in protests. After police arrested Abdullah, Gamal said he went to the city’s main state security building to wait. At around 3 a.m., he said, he saw police march Abdullah, his hands handcuffed in front of him, into the building. Gamal said he has received no further information about his son.

Also at around 3 a.m. on October 11, in Cairo’s Sayyida Zeinab district, police knocked on the door of Ibrahim Salah’s family apartment, according to Salah’s mother, Aisha. They asked Salah, who answered the door, for his university and personal identification cards, then searched the apartment, overturning drawers and furniture. The group included police officers and special forces troops who wore masks, she said.

After police found a clothespin that said “The Martyr Abdel Rahman Hassan,” Salah, a 23-year-old engineering student in his second year at Helwan University, told them that it referred to a friend. The officers took Salah’s mobile phone and laptop and did not respond when Aisha asked where they were taking her son. They marched Salah from the apartment, she said.

Aisha said that Salah’s older brothers visited the local police station and prosecutor’s office, but authorities have not provided any information about where he is being held or what charges he might face. A police officer told a lawyer for the family that it would be better if he did not follow them as they took Salah away, Aisha said.

“I just don’t want my son to be hurt, he’s a very good person, he doesn’t deserve that,” she said. “I’m so scared for him, I’m so scared for his sake. But I stood my ground, I didn’t break down.”

In another arrest at the same time, state security officers came to the family apartment of Ahmed Yasser, a 22-year-old computer science student in his fourth year at Helwan University, at around 3 a.m. on October 11, his sister Inas told Human Rights Watch. Three men carried weapons, including a man who stood at the door with an assault rifle, she said.

The officers who searched the apartment, in Cairo’s Medinat Nasr district, said they had come because Yasser was calling for protests on October 12, according to Inas. Yasser, a vocal supporter of Morsy, had once belonged to the university’s student union and had organized “anti-coup” protests calling for the release of detained students, Inas said. Police had earlier arrested him at a protest in May 2014, and a court sentenced him to five years in prison for protesting illegally, belonging to a banned group, and insulting the army and police. Authorities had released Yasser during the trial and had not re-arrested him following his conviction, Inas said.

On October 12, she said, prosecutors ordered Yasser, now held in Madinat Nasr’s First Police Station, to be held for 15 days pending investigation.